By all logical measures, we should not be fucking with hawks. Some of the most intelligent birds on the planet, hawks are strong and curious and fast as all hell. They have talons and beaks and the evolutionary advantage of being able to claw your face off and fly away before you even realize you’re bleeding.
And yet, against all odds, hawks also have a long and storied history of being tight with humans. Falconry is a profession (hobby? calling?) dating back to 700 BC, and there is to this day a uniquely talented community of people who raise and train hawks, people whose fists feel empty without the weight of an avian predator, people who live in a world where tucking a dead rabbit into the back pocket of your jeans is just a regular Saturday.
In the wake of her father’s sudden death, Helen Macdonald sets out to become one of those people. Already an experienced astringer, she decides to train one of the toughest birds in falconry: the goshawk, a sizable and wicked fast variation of the species known for its nerves and reticence in trusting a handler. “Nervousness, of course, isn’t the right word,” Macdonald writes in H is for Hawk. “It’s simply that they have jacked-up nervous systems in which nerve pathways from the eyes and ears to the motor neurons that control their muscles have only minor links with associated neurons in the brain. Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking.”
It takes only a quick YouTube tour to realize Macdonald isn’t kidding. Goshawks are fast. Really fast. It’s difficult to imagine the impact of one alighting on your fist, even through a thick glove. More difficult still to fathom one living in your home, preening on your lawn and playing fetch as you toss balled-up paper at her (as Mabel, Macdonald’s gos, ultimately does). But what isn’t difficult is seeing a goshawk as a diversion, an object of nature so simultaneously foreign and familiar that her consistent presence would be enough to distract someone from the pain of losing a loved one. Training a hawk requires solitude, isolation and patience. It demands the surrender of the human self for the animal one, calls for a connection between woman and bird that leaves little room for dinner parties or other routine human activities. Training a hawk is like caring for a newborn, if your newborn slept hooded on a perch and subsisted on a steady diet of skinned chicks. A goshawk, looked at this way, is a rather obvious emotional crutch.
Macdonald supplements her experience raising Mabel with the testimonials of falconers past, most significantly T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk documents his (miserable) experience training a gos (named Gos). White, who would go on to write The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, is the poster child for poor falconry, and Macdonald’s relaying of disastrous scenes from his book are some of HIFH’s most painful moments. But Macdonald also recognizes her anguish in White, and the ease with which someone in pain can end up inflicting it on others.
Macdonald is a beautiful, simple writer, which somehow befits a book so plainly respectful of nature. Yes, this is a story of human loss. But it’s also a layman’s study in ornithology, and will make you look differently at birds (even fat, bedraggled New York City pigeons). HIFH manages to capture both the majesty of wildlife and the bizarre capability of humans to find a place in it. The dynamic between Macdonald and her gos is like pet ownership on emotional overdrive. When Mabel takes off from Helen’s fist in search of a far-off pheasant, I held my breath until the whoosh and thump of her return to the glove.
There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning. But it was hard, now, to distinguish between my heart and the hawk at all. When she sat twenty yards across the pitch part of me sat there too, as if someone had taken my heart and moved it that little distance.
Macdonald’s love for her father, who introduced her to falconry, is clear throughout the book. In one of the more poignant moments, she finds herself reaching for the phone to have him clarify an anecdote she’s writing into his eulogy. But the relationship between Macdonald and Mabel is the real heart and soul of H Is for Hawk. It’s strange and sad and lovely, like an emotional talon right up in your heart.
TITLE: H Is for Hawk
AUTHOR: Helen Macdonald
PAGES: 283 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Falcon, Shaler’s Fish: Poems
SORTA LIKE: The Dog Stars meets Born Free
FIRST LINE: “Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed.”