The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again.
-Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk
On November 23, 2017, my boyfriend and I drove out of Chicago to my mother’s house in Lake in the Hills, a small village in northeastern Illinois, where my aunt and uncle from Bemidji, Minnesota had arrived a day earlier. It was Thanksgiving.
If you don’t know, Bemidji is in the north-north part of the state, known for beautiful lakes and penetrating cold. To these masters of cold, Paul Bunyan included, Chicago must be a nice getaway, even in winter.
I wasn’t driving, and my boyfriend wasn’t as familiar with those suburban highways. We missed our turn onto Algonquin Road, which only put us back a few minutes, but I was still annoyed. We were already late. Just before the coast was clear for us to turn around on a back road, we saw a flash of white fall fast into the ditch next to the road.
The landscape of northern Illinois is mostly flat farmland, and in the late-autumn, early winter, it’s mostly dead and ashy brown. As we drove past the spot in the stale grass where that odd white light flashed before us, my boyfriend said “Look,” and I saw an enormous, stunning animal ascend back into the air. Talons curling, wings spreading several feet in length. White feathers with drops of black and brown.
Strange that only the morning before, I had started reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. And here was a hawk in front of me, something I’ve rarely seen in my life.
In the very beginning of her book, among other things, Macdonald talks of losing her father suddenly when she was a fellow at Cambridge, living on her own. Also strange, the day I started the book was November 22, the day my father had passed twelve years earlier. I hadn’t known this about the author before starting the book. Her descriptions of her experience were uncannily similar to mine.
And now I had another connection to the book, I thought, as the hawk flew away, probably to enjoy his prey somewhere far away from the ditch.
Upon arriving to my mother’s, we got out her old, yellowing Birds of North America books to pin down the kind of hawk I’d seen. Because of their commonality, we settled on the red-tailed hawk, though the first bird I pointed to was the Cooper’s hawk, which looks similar. But you can’t base such a decision on one photograph in an old book. And my aunt, whose last name also happens to be MacDonald, knows her stuff about hawks.
With a few coincidences under my belt, I was intrigued to see what else reading about Helen Macdonald’s experiences would bring into my life.
As with any nature writing, the prosey, drawn-out phrases stay in your head for days, as you walk through forests or forgotten roads or fields or city streets. They’re meant to. Slightly different from many other types of writing, nature writing is texturized on the page in a way that makes you notice everything when you’re set free into the world. Underline these passages when you read them; emphasize these passing moments when they fall into your lap.