I never cease to thrill at the sight of a hawk sailing effortlessly on a thermal, wings spread, focusing on the ground below and a potential meal. I feel slightly voyeuristic, hoping to see a bullet dive, an explosion of dust and fur, the hawk winging away, the critter clutched securely in its talons. I had some of the same feelings reading Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk.
Certainly a hawk is front and center in Macdonald’s memoir, a goshawksnamed Mabel. It’s a beautiful bird. I know because I Googled Helen Macdonald and there was her hawk in dozens of photos. More voyeurism. In part the story is how Macdonald trained Mabel. Goshawks are notoriously difficult to train—they are never tamed—as Macdonald explains with precision and feeling by having intricate dialogs with the long-deceased T.H. White through the agency of his 1951 book called The Goshawk. This is the same T.H. White who wrote The Sword and the Stone. A hawk figures prominently in his Arthurian novel, too.
As implied by its title, H is for Hawk is a primer, but a complex one hardly meant for elementary learning. The memoir is about Macdonald’s learning as much as it is about Mabel’s training. In this lyrical book, Macdonald is learning to be left, abandoned. Goshawks are notorious for seeming to be well-trained, but at some point they often fly away from their handlers and return to the wild. The smell of Macdonald’s fear of this likelihood wafts from the pages of her memoir with a persistence that produced a state of anxiety and suspense in me. Every time that Mabel flew over a hedgerow or stand of trees and out of sight, I felt my tension rising as Macdonald plowed through mud, tilled fields, thorn bushes, and private property trying to locate and reclaim Mabel before she returned to her feral existence.
Helen Macdonald was no neophyte falconer when she decided to train Mable. She had already schooled many hawks and had written a book and articles about the raptors and their history. Her decision to take on the schooling of a goshawk, the sternest challenge in the ancient world of falconry, came about indirectly through her feelings of abandonment. When her father died unexpectedly, she was unprepared for his death at every level. She discovered that the “stages of grief” was an abstract perhaps irrelevant “how-to” construct. For Macdonald, living with Mabel as she went from a wild eight-week old fledgling to a trained killer became the evolutionary process whereby she achingly arrived at acceptance of her father’s death and more of an understanding of what had bound the two of them together, and why.
Macdonald’s memoir is deeply layered by her explorations of her relationships with her dad and Mabel and of her poignant introspections. Another, equally interesting aspect, is provided by her relationship with the natural world. The book opens with an anthem to the countryside north-east of Cambridge in eastern England. The fens may not be as spectacular or as well-known to Americans as the Cotswolds or the Lake District or the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. They nevertheless have an abiding and understated appeal as their low, broad wetlands—mostly drained marshes—crowd against small villages, spectacular cathedrals, abandoned U.S. airbases, and give way to a sandy, forested area called the Brecklands. There, if one has patience, some knowledge of hawks, and a little luck, one may see a goshawk ambush a rabbit or a pheasant. It is in the Brecklands, surrounded by water, sand, and forest that Helen Macdonald begins her difficult journey. It begins with her looking for goshawks in their natural homes which she writes “is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say how or when.” Grace with rapture. – Neal Ferguson
Also available by Helen Macdonald: Falconer; Shaler’s Fish.