The goshawk is staring at me in mortal terror, and I can feel the silences between both our heartbeats coincide…She breathes hot hawk breath in my face. It smells of pepper and musk and burned stone.
In her extraordinary and riveting memoir, H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald grieves her father’s death by training a young goshawk, whom she names Mabel, which means “lovable, or dear.” This, about a bird that is notoriously difficult to train, and about which “everything…is tuned and turned to hunt and kill.” Macdonald, however, has been fascinated with goshawks since childhood, when she would go on long walks through the English countryside with her photojournalist father as she searched for birds and he, airplanes. As a child Macdonald was given The Goshawk, a classic book on the subject by T.H. White detailing his own wrenching and often failed attempts to train a goshawk, and she read it over and over again. After her father’s death it’s natural that she would choose a goshawk to train.
At a time when her life is fractured by grief, when “the light that filled my house was deep and livid, half magnolia, half rainwater,” and she dreams of a hawk “slipping through wet air to somewhere else” and wants to follow it, Macdonald arranges a meeting with a Belfast hawk breeder on a Scottish quay. “The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways.” And so the journey begins.
When she returns home, where she is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, Macdonald embarks upon Mabel’s training. The first thing she needs to do is learn to become invisible. “It’s what you do when a fresh hawk sits on your left fist with food beneath her feet, in a state of savage, defensive fear.” It’s also something that Macdonald, who has always been a watcher like her father, more comfortable seeing than being seen, is good at. And now, more than ever, she senses that she must withdraw from the world in order to find her way back to it. “Sitting there with the hawk in that darkened room I felt safer than I’d done for months. Partly because I had a purpose. But also because I’d closed the door on the world outside.”
Over time Mabel comes to trust Macdonald, returning to her fist at the sound of a whistle, and the two start to venture further afield. It is not only Mabel, however, who is learning to enter, or re-enter a world populated by people, bicycles and joggers, “like bats leaving their roost…they keep to the paths…which is good, because I can position myself and the hawk in a triangle of rough grass and chickweed…of course they don’t see us.”
This theme of invisibility—protective and isolating—weaves throughout the narrative. Being alive, being fully engaged, is risky, and Macdonald often feels “that very old longing of mine to possess the hawk’s eye. To live the safe and solitary life; to look down on the world from a height and keep it there. To be the watcher; invulnerable, detached, complete.” And yet Macdonald’s life with Mabel is anything but detached. There are moments of beauty, humor, even companionship, such as when they watch television together. “The hawk balances evenly on the balls of her feet, mesmerized by the flickering screen. Tiny white wisps of down still attached to the finials of her scapular feathers wave in the draught from the hall.”
Mabel tethers Macdonald to the world no more so than when they go out to hunt. When Mabel kills a rabbit and starts to eat it alive, which is how goshawks kill, it is Macdonald who must step in to break the rabbit’s neck to stop its suffering. “Kneeling by its corpse I’d feel a sharp awareness of my edges. The rain prickling on my collar. A pain in one knee. The scratches on my legs and arms from pushing myself through a hedge…and a sharp, wordless comprehension of my own mortality.” Mabel takes Macdonald to the very edge of what it is to be human, plunging her into the brutality of life and death, where the pain of her own loss can be quenched by nothing less than the ferocious act of hawking. “Grief had spurred me to fly the hawk, but now my grief was gone. Everything was gone except this quiet sylvan scene. Into which I intended to let slip havoc and murder.”
As they range across fields and scramble through hedgerows, Macdonald takes flight “to a place from which I didn’t want to ever return…I’d turned myself into a hawk…I was nervous, highly strung, paranoid, prone to fits of terror and rage; I ate greedily or didn’t eat at all; I fled from society, hid from everything; found myself drifting into strange states where I wasn’t certain who or what I was…I did not understand what I had done.”
In this darkest of hours, just as Macdonald realizes that falconry, the very thing she sought to save herself, “was killing me,” she begins to fully come to terms with her loss, even understanding the meaning of her dreams, “the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.” Only as she’s able to grasp the enormity of her grief is she able to realize what she risks losing—not only her father, but friendship, companionship, other humans.
“Human hands,” she writes, “are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close. They’re 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.”
In the tradition of great nature writers, Macdonald articulates a depth of emotion reflected in exquisite prose and meticulously observed details of the natural world. The writing oscillates between gorgeously rendered detail and wide-lensed landscapes as vast and untethered as the hawk’s flight as we, too, are brought on a journey of discovery through Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel, with T.H. White, whose story weaves through Macdonald’s own, adding a fascinating counterpoint, and with herself.
H is for Hawk, a memoir about grief and loss, through the training a goshawk, is brilliant, unexpected, and deeply satisfying. It is a testament not only to Macdonald’s talent, but to her profound connection to life, and to us, earning it an unqualified spot on my Books I Love bookshelf.