H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is a memoir about how she trained a northern goshawk for falconry after her father’s unexpected death. Like her experiences, the book is full of strange, wonderful, and unexpected things, including stories about T.H. White. But the most unexpected thing was when she called John Muir a liar for claiming that nature could heal her grief.

I don’t think she actually used the word liar. And maybe it wasn’t John Muir she was picking on, although I’m pretty sure I got this quote from her book:

Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions. Earth hath no sorrows earth cannot heal.

John Muir

She mentioned it when she was concluding that the hawk did not help her, because it drew her away from her humanity, instead of towards it. Nature hadn’t helped her recover from her grief, because she needed other people to do that.

Has she misunderstood this quote? I don’t think so. The statement that earth heals earth suggests that he’s talking about nature’s ability to restore itself, but the first sentence is more encompassing and could apply to any living thing. Muir promises that nature can heal us, and because of her experience, Macdonald disagrees.

I think the trouble here is expecting to be healed of grief in the first place. When someone dies, the pain can be crippling, and we want it to go away. It’s natural to look forward to the day we will no longer be crushed by our sorrow or aching for whomever we have lost. But you can’t heal grief. It’s a process. How we feel about the loss changes, but we keep feeling.

My grandmother died nearly twenty years ago, and I haven’t stopped missing her. I won’t pretend that I think of her every day, because I don’t. But I think of her often, and when I do, it’s always bittersweet.

No matter how fondly I remember her, the memory is always tinged with sadness because I know she’s gone. The sadness is worse when I think of the things I never thought to ask her that I want to know about now. Worst of all is dreaming of her, then waking to remember that she’s not here any more.

My grief ebbs and flows. Sometimes the memories of her bring only the mildest melancoly, other times I find myself crying as if she died recently. I am not done grieving for her, and I never will be. It’s nothing like it was the first year she was gone, but missing her will be part of me for the rest of my life.

Both Muir and Macdonald are right. While nature can heal some things, it can only soothe and console us when we are grieving. Grief is a process, not an injury, something we have to live with, not something that we can fix or erase. Grief may lessen with time, but it is here to stay.

Do you agree with Muir’s quote?

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