Jennie Goode reviews H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Grove Press | 2015 | ISBN: 978-0802123411 | 288 pages
A few weeks before I picked up Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, I met my young neighbor Jazmín’s pet bird on a visit to the community garden at the end of my block. From inside a bright pink soft-sided cage, the tiny parakeet emitted an alarm of unhappy chirps. When Jazmín released the bird onto a concrete bench so we could properly meet, the bird madly flapped its clipped green wings, jumped off the bench like a skydiver, and disappeared into a rosemary bush. Jazmín let out a sigh and plunged her arm into the shrub.
When I began H Is for Hawk, Macdonald’s account of training a goshawk in the wake of her father’s sudden death, I worried the book might provoke a similar sadness, a regret at the way we humans sometimes force wild creatures to meet our emotional needs. But unlike my young neighbor, who hadn’t the awareness to really see (much less address) the circumstances of her caged companion, Macdonald turns her inquisitive and insightful mind specifically to the question of the complicated relationship between humans and the wild.
What are we looking for when we turn to the wild? This is not a theoretical question for Macdonald, an experienced falconer, who brings a young female goshawk into her living room, names her Mabel, and stocks her freezer with the “sad, fluffy corpses” of cockerel chicks. “I was in ruins,” she writes. “Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”
Macdonald seeks escape from her despair, focus amidst the chaotic self-dissolution that accompanies her grief. Mabel provides a model at times and a mirror at other times, but mostly what the author finds in this young hawk is another sentient being, flesh and feather, distinct, individual. When she first brings Mabel home, she describes her in admiring, image-rich detail:
The feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards its tip with a leaf-bladed spearhead, so from her throat to her feet she is patterned with a shower of falling raindrops. Her wings are the colour of stained oak, their covert feathers edged in palest teak, barred flight-feathers folded quietly beneath. And there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river. She looks new.
When she writes, a few pages later, that Mabel “is interested in flies, in specks of floating dust, in the way light falls on certain surfaces,” I think of a mother’s notes in a baby book.
This kind of close looking likely comes from the author’s training as a historian and naturalist, and, too, from her sensibility as a poet, but Macdonald herself might attribute it to another part of her identity. “I was a watcher,” she tells us. “I had always been a watcher. When I was a child I’d climb the hill behind my house and crawl into my favourite den under a rhododendron bush . . . I’d look down on the world below, basking in the fierce calm that comes from being invisible but seeing everything. Watching, not doing. Seeking safety in not being seen.”
This penchant for invisibility, for retreat from the human world, grows stronger after her father’s death. And training a hawk offers her an excuse for indulging it. In her early days with Mabel, Macdonald holes up in her house, draws the shades, turns off her phone, and spends her days and nights getting the hawk accustomed to her. Later, as she trains her hawk to fly and hunt with her, they spend long hours alone together in the English countryside. In this isolation, Macdonald begins to see the world through Mabel’s eyes. “To train a hawk,” she writes, “you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods. . . . You seem to feel what it feels. Notice what it notices. The hawk’s apprehensions become your own.”
Macdonald calls this way of seeing “imaginative re-creation”; I might simply call it “empathy.” It is this particular facet of perception that distinguishes not only the author’s falconry, but also her writing. Just as she extends her sensitivity and insight to Mabel, she does so as well with the book’s other main character, the author T. H. White. Along with the Arthurian tales The Once and Future King and The Sword and the Stone, White wrote a lesser-known book, The Goshawk, which chronicles his tempestuous and ultimately tragic attempts to train a goshawk. Macdonald read The Goshawk as a precocious young child, already interested in the finer points of falconry, and White’s account shadows her through Mabel’s training. As she unfolds White’s story alongside her own, he provides a kind of foil. So consumed is he by his own damaged psyche and an intense desire to be loved, he is blind to the needs of his hawk, Gos, whom he overfeeds, strokes constantly, and deprives of sleep. Where Macdonald looks at Mabel and sees Mabel, White looks at Gos and sees only himself.
In many ways, H Is for Hawk is a meditation on seeing—particularly on what we see when we look at wild creatures. Midway through the story of training her hawk, Macdonald visits an art exhibit, where she is surprised to find a replica of a bird blind in the middle of the gallery. From inside the blind, crowded together with other gallery goers, she watches a projection of a California condor soaring across a screen. The experience unsettles her. “I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations,” she writes. “And how they are disappearing—not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of.”
Macdonald’s life as a falconer and as a writer is aimed at resisting this kind of reduction. Her relationship to the wild is intimate, complicated, and full of respect and love. And we readers are the fortunate witnesses.
Header photo of goshawk in flight by Vladimir Hodac, courtesy Shutterstock.