Ever since H is for Hawk was released twelve months ago I’ve heard nothing but ringing endorsements. Friends and colleagues have been rapturous in their applause of the book, and there have been endless glowing reviews. But after seeing this beautiful piece in The Guardian — ‘How Berlin's urban goshawks helped me learn to love the city’ — I thought I would save reading the book until I was here in Berlin.
H is for Hawk follows the period of Helen Macdonald’s life after the unexpected death of her father. Struck by grief, needing something to take her mind off the deeply-felt loss of her father, Macdonald purchases a goshawk. After bonding with her father over bird-watching as a child, Macdonald had always wanted to train her own goshawk, and this hobby becomes her outlet during this difficult stage of her life. What follows is a very honest, open and sometimes confronting account, but which is told with a self-awareness and in a way that keeps herself accountable. Macdonald has thoroughly researched goshawking and its history, including its darker moments such as the link between the Nazi image of strength and the bird of prey. Throughout the book Macdonald balances her academic research and training with a very relatable voice of a person struggling through an emotional time, with a very British manner that never pushes too far, becoming overwrought or indulgent.
Though it is slightly confronting for this urbanite to think of training a bird of prey to hunt and kill, and I remain confused by the desire to link an animal that is born to kill with a very human grief, Macdonald never shies away from the reality of the goshawk’s temperament and purpose. In this passage very early on in the book, she details her first encounter with death, which came from watching a bird of prey, and foreshadows the healing of grief to come:
Reaching through the thorns I picked them [feathers of a pheasant killed by a hawk] free, one by one, tucked the hand that held them into my pocket, and cupped the feathers in my closed fist as if I were holding a moment tight inside itself. It was the first death I had seen. I wasn’t sure what it had made me feel.
But we soon learn that in training Mabel (the name given to her hawk), Macdonald gives herself a much-needed purpose. Sure, at first while Mabel becomes familiar with Macdonald and her new surroundings this becomes a reason to stay indoors and insular. But soon it becomes a reason to leave the house, to feel a part of the landscape, to breathe fresh air and encounter others.
Concentrate on why you're here, I tell myself. You have a hawk to fly. Ever since my father died I’d had these bouts of derealisation, strange episodes where the world become unrecognisable. It will pass.
More than this, watching every move of Mabel’s, working to understand her desires and abilities, causes Macdonald to watch herself. To understand her grief, but also to catch herself when she feels she is spiralling towards depression, when everything becomes too much and she feels like she is losing control. Because when she would suffer, Mabel would suffer. The hawk’s finely tuned ability to pick up on the emotions — particularly of fear and anger — of its trainer causes Macdonald to see herself through Mabel’s eyes: ‘Even if you don't move a muscle, just relax into a new frame of mind, the hawk knows. It’s extraordinary. It takes a long time to be yourself, in the presence of a new hawk.’
Spending time with Mabel eventually gives Macdonald a social outlet, a need to spend more and more time outdoors, a desire to break through the sinking grief and give her a chance to expel all the complex emotions she is cycling through. After crashing her car, finding herself being clumsy for no reason, feeling anger at nothing, the time she gets to spend with Mabel becomes a form of therapy:
The world with the hawk in it was insulated from harm, and in that world I was exactly aware of all the edges of my skin. ... And every afternoon I walked out onto the pitch with relief, because when the hawk was on my fist I knew who I was, and I was never angry with her, even if I wanted to sink to my knees and weep every time she tried to fly away.
For Macdonald, the hawk acts as a lesson to slow down, to reconnect with friends, to take deep breaths, to get outside her head and out into the wide open fields. Moving to Berlin I had hoped to do similarly. Already it has let me see a bigger picture, one outside of the fear-ridden insular politics of Australia that were completely doing my head in, and one outside of a hectic and often stifling work schedule, into a city that is wide and open, with leafy streets and room to breath. The slower life here feels like it is healing me every day. Eating well, doing regular gentle exercise, appreciating every moment of sunshine, all of these things are restoring my brain and my body to a place I knew they could go, but which in Melbourne felt impossible to regain. But it is taking time. This week I caught myself rushing, stressing, feeling anxious for no real reason. My mind and body still seek permission to go more slowly. We often experience that when we go on holiday it takes the full first week to realise that we are actually on holiday, that we can stop rushing, that we can sleep in, that we can spend our days beyond a set routine. This transition is similar to that first week, but as a longer term life-change is taking a lot longer to reinforce.
But like Macdonald, being outdoors is the best cure for my busy mind and unsettled body. I’ve always been calmed by trees and big expanses of green, and the tree-lined streets of Berlin, with their wide avenues and height limits on buildings that leave plenty of room for the sun to beam down and light up the footpaths, the cafes and the apartments, make me much more calm than the narrow dark and busy streets of Melbourne. But it is also the number of parks here, the canals that wind their way through Kreuzberg where we live, and the big open spaces within an otherwise urban city. The fact that ‘Berlin has the highest density of goshawk territories anywhere in the world – urban or rural’ (as Amy Triptot notes in her piece for The Guardian) extends the analogy that what is good for the goshawk is good for the human. And it was just the other day, right across the road from the yoga studio that I go to every week, in a cemetery which I saw for the first time on Thursday, that I stopped and took a moment. Surrounded by the stunning dense green floor, the shade of the big leafy trees, I was faced with my emotions and short-comings in a very similar way to Macdonald. Quoting John Muir in H is for Hawk Macdonald states ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal’. In a city that has seen so much, where you are constantly confronted with tragedy and grief, that statement is difficult to reconcile. But in a city this beautiful, this green and lush, it certainly goes a long way to helping.
In Berlin all supermarkets are closed on Sundays, which means you either need to be prepared and stock up like we do at the Turkish Market, or brave the crowds at the local stores on Saturdays. But whether we have remembered to shop or not, Sunday night meals here have become some of my favourite. We use our imagination and make the best of what we have. Perhaps it’s my Adelaide upbringing (yeah, yeah) but I actually really like this idea of everyone taking a break, and the challenge that comes with it. Bowls of roasted vegetables with a poached egg on top (like I’ve made before here), or big hearty salads when it’s warm, and now this Sunday Night Shakshouka will certainly enter the rotation.
In the case of Shakshouka there are as many recipes and disputes over authenticity as there are for hummus, but I refer to my friend - and favourite Middle-Eastern cook - Yasmeen for inspiration. I’ve cooked several of her recipes here before, including one of my very favourite meals, Allayeh. I’ve called my version Sunday Night Shakshouka because it makes the most of our Sunday evening fridge clean-out. Firstly by mostly relying on pantry staples — an onion, some garlic, some spices and a tin of tomatoes — things that we usually have in the house no matter what. But it’s also a chance to use up the capsicum that is starting to look a little sad, to grate that lowly limp zucchini for some extra veggie bulk, to roughly chop some parsley and spring onions that have survived the week to add freshness, which also means the feta cheese that is often added to Shakshouka doesn’t really feel necessary (though of course you could add if you wish and have some to hand). We eat this with either some bread if there’s still some in the pantry, but we’ve also had it with either a few crackers or even with sliced cucumbers and radishes if it’s warm and we feel like something fresh and cooling. It gives a chance to sit down and reflect on the weekend, talk of the week ahead, and just take a moment to be together. A simpler, easier way to eat and to live.
While I've been finding my feet in this city a crucial part of settling in has been finding bookstores. Living in a country where you read in the non-native language could prove challenging, but in Berlin there are a number of opportunities to buy English language books. While I've been making my way through this list of Berlin's Best Bookshops by Slow Travel Berlin, I've been a little frustrated at the inability to buy a few books that I'm particularly looking forward to read, yet also very well aware of Germany's difficult relationship with Amazon. This article from 2012 explains the history of this tension very well for a beginner and while I do become frustrated by the lack of choice at times, I know that this is just another step in slowing life down. I may not be able to get my hands on as many new releases as I would like and that I would easily do at home, but maybe it gives me a chance to catch up on the books that I've missed in the last few years, the classics which I've never read, or more books by local or regional authors that I've yet to discover. By taking my time in second-hand bookstores and new parts of the city, who knows what I'll find.