Chapter 1: Patience
Early one morning, Helen Macdonald goes to a forest northeast of Cambridge to birdwatch, looking for goshawks. Goshawks are more difficult to spot than sparrowhawks—they are bigger and deadlier. The practice of looking closely engages Macdonald in a seemingly ancient practice of paying attention to her natural surroundings. The pond nearby is actually a bomb crater, and Macdonald ponders the landscape: many layers of time are preserved here as the earth has eroded. She loves this part of England, called the Brecklands, because it feels like one of the last remaining wild places in the country. It is rich with history, and Macdonald, herself a historian, notes the class distinctions that mark the way people think about the histories of English landscapes.
Goshawks were once bred across the British Isles, but land enclosure laws and firearms development in the hunting industry led to the extinction of the British goshawk. In the 1960s and 70s, falconer clubs schemed to bring them back: they carefully bred goshawks and released them into the wild until their population returned. “Their existence gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always untouched by human hearts and hands,” Macdonald says. “The wild can be human work.” After hours of waiting, at 8:30 am, Macdonald sees male and female goshawks circling each other in the air. Then they disappear.
Macdonald remembers watching for sparrowhawks with her father when she was nine years old. Her father, a newspaper photographer, explained the concept of patience to her: in order to see something good, sometimes you need to wait for a long time.
In the Brecklands, Macdonald finds herself holding a clump of reindeer moss, a hardy species of lichen that can survive in almost any conditions; it is “patience made manifest.” She takes the moss home with her and places it on a shelf. Three weeks later, Macdonald is looking at this piece of moss when her mother calls to tell her that her father has died.
Chapter 2: Lost
After the phone call, Macdonald keeps her plan to go to dinner with her friend Christina. Macdonald is distraught and unable to eat, and she thinks that Christina must have said something to the server, because he brings her complimentary ice cream and a brownie. This strikes Macdonald as both touching and absurd.
Macdonald remembers recently seeing her father with a nasty cut on his forearm; he didn’t remember how he had hurt himself. She thinks about the etymology of the word “bereavement” and describes trying to use a metaphor of receiving a punch in the stomach surrounded by one’s friends and family, who have also been punched in the stomach—everyone suffering from their own individual pain, even when together—to capture the nature of grief. Macdonald joins her mother in London to collect her father’s things, which includes his car. It was towed after his sudden death, and Macdonald has to show the impound lot his death certificate in order to waive the tow fee. Macdonald’s father had at one point photographed every bridge over the Thames; Macdonald and her mother remember this as they look out over the river.
After the funeral, Macdonald returns to Cambridge. She feels that she might be going a bit mad. She wants to understand and “taxonomise” her grief, to put it in order by consulting books, but it all feels senseless. At one point, she has a brief romance with a man who leaves her when he realizes how “broken” she is. It is a season of “apocalyptic” rain, as if the earth is grieving, too, and Macdonald begins having recurring dreams about hawks. She used to work at a birds-of-prey center, and one day someone brought in an unconscious female goshawk. It turned out that the hawk was fine, and they let her go. Now Macdonald remembers the ancient beauty of the hawk and the way the bird seemed to disappear into the sky. She replays this memory in her dreams.