I finished H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald this morning. Even though H is for Hawk has some of the best writing I think I’ve ever read in it, it took me two years to read. One reason for this was that I stopped about one third in to read The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White. T.H. White is a key character in H is for Hawk, and I came across The Sword in the Stone in the library incidentally as I was half engaged, half not engaged with H is for Hawk. The two books are now fused as one in my head.
The Sword in the Stone, which I am about to reread, contains astonishing passages. As part of the protagonist’s education he is transformed into various animals, and the writing of this experience is so vivid it is impossible to believe that White hadn’t somehow had first hand experience of these transformations. The final experience was so powerful I had to push the book aside for awhile and let the vast, bleak landscapes it had evoked in me die back down into the murky mundane of now.
Seeing. Both authors truly see things. Helen MacDonald’s descriptions of the landscapes she goes hunting through are incredibly rich and vivid, and White’s second sight as animal is, as I said, astonishing. It makes me feel that I am a quarter alive. Perhaps a fifth. If I went down to the garden now and pulled up a handful of flora from our weedy lawn what could I tell you about it. There is grass, but what type? Clover? I think. Daisies? Dandelions? None of which, I would guess are native in any way. The others plants in the lawn I haven’t a clue about. How do they support each other? How do they compete in their blind way?
Good writing can make you see differently. I remember that when I finished Walden I had a couple of days where I became intensely aware of things that I had stopped noticing. One morning I became transfixed by the experience of eating my Vogel’s toast. I slowed my chewing down and took in the different tastes as my teeth ground the grains and released the nuttiness inside. Likewise, reading H is for Hawk made me suddenly aware of our cat again. Not as a faintly absurd supercilious loafer, but as an animal. Remembering to not anthropomorphise her made me appreciate how near at hand an alien perspective was to me on a daily basis, how little attention I paid to that, and how easily I prefer to make everything an affable adjunct of myself rather than deal with the possibility of the strange, or discomfiting.