H Is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Grief is a state of great sadness that is the normal response to a loss. The loss of someone who is dearly loved can cause the intense suffering of deep grief. In her memoir H Is for Hawk (Grove Press 2014) Helen Macdonald writes with staggering beauty and virtuosity about the deep grief that gripped her at the sudden death of her father, noted British photojournalist Alisdair Macdonald. I was immediately swept up into H Is for Hawk because of the splendid power of the language. Macdonald’s description of the grief that overcame her at her father’s death is truthful, pragmatic and frightening. It is also clear evidence that she was teetering on the edge of a mental collapse. But what has this to do with hawks? For Helen Macdonald, everything.
H Is for Hawk is a memoir, and as such the story incorporates the very early years of the author, including the story of Macdonald’s being the sole survivor of a set of twins; her twin brother died soon after birth. Macdonald writes that she was not told of her deceased twin for many years, and the news was a surprise. “But not so surprising. I’d always felt a part of me was missing; an old simple absence. Could my obsession with birds, with falconry in particular, have been born of that first loss? Was [my early sketch of a] ghostly kestrel a grasped-at apprehension of my twin, its carefully drawn jesses a way of holding tight to something I didn’t know I’d lost, but knew was gone? I suppose it is possible.” This account of loss and McDonald’s attempts to fill the emptiness with another kind of attachment sets the emotional dilemma in H Is for Hawk.
When Macdonald describes her interest in birds and falconry as an obsession she is not exaggerating. By the time she was eight years old she had told her parents that she was going to be a falconer and began begging her father to help her find secondhand copies of nineteenth-century falconry books at old book shops. She committed long passages of these ancient tomes to memory. Macdonald admits that she “became the most appalling falconry bore.” There was one volume among her collection of falconry books that puzzled and troubled her as an eight-year old: The Goshawk by T. H. White. This was an early book by White, who would later write The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, stories about the legendary King Arthur. Young Helen didn’t grasp that “[The]concerted duel between Mr. White and the great beautiful hawk during the training of the latter…” might have some meaning beyond the technical explanation of caring for a hawk. She knew it was nothing like her other falconry books, and that Mr. White was a terrible disappointment as a falconer, yet she desired to keep the book for the beautiful picture of the goshawk on the cover. The book sat on her shelf for years, and it was not until four months after her father’s death that Macdonald once again opened The Goshawk by T. H. White. It was then she found a connection between her grief, White’s experience as a failed falconer and her own overwhelming desire to train a goshawk. This triangle of connections is the momentum for the narrative, and keeps the reader running after Macdonald and White as they both try to fly away from emotional pain and grief by means of their hawks.
Macdonald’s dark days of loss are put into sharp relief against the bright cinematic beauty of the English landscape and Macdonald’s spectacularly detailed descriptions of her goshawk, Mabel. In this passage Macdonald tells about her first meeting with the young goshawk, which she purchased from a Belfast breeder. The breeder and Macdonald meet at a Scottish ferry landing, four hundred miles from Macdonald’s home. The breeder has a huge cardboard box which he carefully opens:
“And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings legs and light-splashed feathers.”
From this point, Macdonald takes the reader into the tradition-laced world of falconry, teaching along the way about the anatomy and habits of goshawks. In H Is for Hawk Macdonald never romanticizes the hawk or minimizes the difficulty of training one. Nor does she shy away from telling about the physical demands on and dangers to trainers, or the rather gruesome need to keep dead chicks in her freezer as a source of food and means of training Mabel. Legends, fairytales and even history have romanticized the hawk – Macdonald does not. Goshawks must kill their prey and eat them to survive, after all.
But what Macdonald does, by means of extraordinarily beautiful prose which leans enticingly toward poetry, is reveal the temptation that presents itself when one becomes totally immersed in training a hawk as a reaction to grief. Throughout H Is for Hawk, the reader recognizes the urges of Macdonald and T. H. White to be completely subsumed in another sphere; to leave the community of human interaction behind, and thereby fool themselves into believing that the pain of being human and the suffering of grief is also left behind. In this paragraph which takes place after Mabel has spotted and killed a rabbit in a field next to a well traveled road, Macdonald begins to realize that she has exchanged human attachment for a dangerous level of non-human attachment:
“I don’t have both sides. I only have wildness. And I don’t need wildness anymore. I’m not stifled by domesticity. I have none. There is no need right now to feel close to a fetch of dark northern woods, a creature with baleful eyes and death in her foot. Human hands are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close. They are not for breaking the necks of rabbits, pulling loops of viscera out onto leaf-litter while the hawk dips her head to drink blood from her quarry’s chest cavity. I watch all these things going on and my heart is salt…Faces turn to watch me crouched with rabbit and hawk. I feel like a tableau at a roadside shrine. But I am not sure what the shrine is for. I’m a roadside phenomenon. I am death to community. I am missing the point.”
Friend Terri Baas commented that H Is for Hawk reminded her of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning book by Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I think that is a great comparison. There are many parallels between the two books, in particular their beautiful descriptive styles and the priority of nature in the narrative. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is more God directed – God found in the intricacy of life in nature; H Is for Hawk is more human directed – humans finding and using nature to cope with life. Dillard’s view of God is expansive as she sees God’s goodness in nature – even as she observes death in the creatures at Tinker Creek. Macdonald’s idea of God is more restricted. Here is a quote where Macdonald tells of the difficulty of spotting goshawks and compares it to the appearance of grace in one’s life: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often and you don’t get to say how or when.”
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is an exquisite book which peers into the subjects of grief, hawks and life with rare insight. I hope you will read it with friends, and then go for a walk in the country and look for hawks.