Not a celebration of hawking, still less an apology, Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk covers a lot of ground while, at the same time, being tightly focused on describing what training one specific goshawk—Mabel—was like, and—more importantly—what compelled her to do it.
The book's distinguishing characteristic is that Macdonald never loses sight of how weird her obsession is.
She never pretends that it makes her happy. She never pretends that hawking was what she needed. The book is a variation on the themes of self-doubt, second thoughts, and regret.
And most extraordinary of all, Macdonald never, ever, hints that other people should take up hawking. This reserve is almost unique in nature writing, which is lousy with characters who are only too happy to expiate on the rich rewards of their pastime, and feel positively compelled to urge everybody else to give it a try.
Quite the contrary. Macdonald’s book is as complete and thorough presentation as you could wish of why hawking is dangerous, ethically suspect, ruinously expensive, and bad for you mentally and physically.
And so it’s entirely appropriate that she should devote a large part of the book to discussing her distinguished predecessor, T. H. White, whose 1951 Goshawk recounts an even more disastrous attempt at hawking. White becomes one of the main characters of the book, along with Macdonald, her late father, and Mabel. Skimmers will probably consider this filler, but it’s the key. Macdonald’s recognition of herself in miserable, lonely, closeted White is one of the few glimmers of hope on offer.
I was captured first by Macdonald’s forthright independent sensibility. She prefers ...
… not an untouched wilderness like a mountaintop, but a ramshackle wildness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness.
Her first glimpse of Mabel prompts a brilliant prose fanfare worthy of Gabrielli:
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. She is wearing jesses, and the man holds them. For one awful, long moment she is hanging head-downward, wings open, like a turkey in a butcher’s shop, only her head is turned right-way-up and she is seeing more than she has ever seen before in her whole short life. Her world was an aviary no larger than a living room. Then it was a box. But now it is this; and she can see everything: the point-source glitter on the waves, a diving cormorant a hundred yards out; pigment flakes under wax on the lines of parked cars; far hills and the heather on them and miles and miles of sky where the sun spreads on dust and water and illegible things moving in it that are white scraps of gulls. Everything startling and newstamped on her entirely astonished brain.
A subsequent scene with Mabel is equally lyrical, but in a very different key:
This killing grip is an old, deep pattern in her brain, an innate response that hasn’t yet found the stimulus meant to release it. Because other sounds provoke it: door hinges, squealing brakes, bicycles with unoiled wheels – and on the second afternoon, Joan Sutherland singing an aria on the radio. Ow. I laughed out loud at that. Stimulus: opera. Response: kill. But later these misapplied instincts stop being funny. At just past six o’clock a small, unhappy wail came from a pram outside the window. Straight away the hawk drove her talons into my glove, ratcheting up the pressure in savage, stabbing spasms. Kill. The baby cries. Kill kill kill.
And when Macdonald gets to hunting, clarity and frankness don't desert her:
It is a rush. You lose yourself in it. And so you run towards those little shots of fate, where the world turns. That is the lure: that is why we lose ourselves, when powerless from hurt and grief, in drugs or gambling or drink; in addictions that collar the broken soul and shake it like a dog. I had found my addiction on that day out with Mabel. It was as ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin. I had taken flight to a place from which I didn’t want to ever return. …
... I found it harder and harder to return, because out with the hawk I didn’t need a home. Out there I forgot I was human at all. Everything the hawk saw was raw and real and drawn hair-fine, and everything else was dampened to nothing.
Macdonald scares up some important, topical questions: Why do people hunt? What’s the point? Why do people mess with exotic animals? Why don’t they leave them alone? For her, these questions are tied up with an even bigger one: How can I go on after losing someone I loved?
She is too good a writer to offer any answers. She describes how things have gone for her, and leaves making judgments to you.
Not that she doesn’t reflect, hard, on what she’s gone through. Indeed, more than a how-to guide to hawking, Macdonald has written a how-to guide to thinking seriously about things that matter. She struggles to understand herself without vanity, self-pity, excuses, or cynicism.
[Image: A goshawk drinking, late 17th-18th centuries, Punjab Hills]