H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
When her father died suddenly, the world stopped making sense to Helen Macdonald. “A kind of madness drifted in,” she recalls. “Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.”Macdonald was a falconer, had for years been a falconer, but she had never wanted to fly goshawks. “They unnerved me. They were things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets. Falcons were the raptors I loved: sharp-winged, bullet-heavy birds with dark eyes and an extraordinary ease in the air.”
After her father’s death however, she recalls an encounter she had with a goshawk at a bird-of-prey centre in Western England. The bird was an older female, and she was beautiful. “Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell… wild and spooky and reptilian.”
She begins dreaming of hawks – goshawks – and before long finds herself 400 miles from her home, on a Scottish quayside meeting a breeder from Belfast who has her goshawk in a cardboard box. “She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.” If you haven’t guessed already, Macdonald is nothing if not effusive and eloquent on the appearance and nature of birds of prey.
Macdonald is a “watcher,” has always been. As a girl, she buried herself beneath bushes to watch the birds, lose herself and, through them, take flight. Training the hawk, who Macdonald names Mabel, requires exactly this loss of self. Macdonald sequesters herself within her one-room house for days, accustoming the hawk to her presence. “I had to put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, and as the days passed in the darkened room my humanity was burning away.”
Her facility with language and her connection to Mabel keep us fascinated as she progresses through various stages of “manning” the hawk – the first time Mabel rouses (shakes her feathers in contentment), the first time she unhoods Mabel in the presence of others, walking through the streets of Cambridge with Mabel on her arm – throughout these stages, we are privy to a bevy of factoids about goshawks.
“I have three different receptor-sensitivities in my eyes: red, green and blue. Hawks, like other birds, have four. This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth.”
Hawk training is isolating for Helen and, after days and weeks of identifying with Mabel, she loses her facility for simple human interaction – “it was hard to distinguish between my heart and the hawk at all.”
In H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s oddysey parallels that of fellow author and falconer T.H. White who not only wrote the Arthurian fantasy novel The Once and Future King, but also The Goshawk, a cringe-worthy journal that details White’s experience and relationship with Gos, a goshawk with whom White failed utterly. H is For Hawk is the opposite of White’s account. It is a superb memoir of Macdonald’s deep encounter with wildness and the healing effect it has upon her life.