H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

8th Jul 2014

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
When Helen Macdonald's father died, she bought a goshawk. She had been a falconer all her life, but had never worked with a gos. They were too deadly, too bloodthirsty, too big – all qualities which now seemed perfectly in keeping with grief.

H is for Hawk is the story of mourning through falconry, a project that took the bereaved outside of herself and into the wild. It is also a history of those who came before her, most notably T.H. White, author of The Goshawk. Helen Macdonald charts her own progress alongside White’s disastrous attempts to befriend his own hawk.

This is a history of goshawks that is as much human as bird. We learn that the wild is not so far away as we thought, though Macdonald is wary of any pastoral romanticism that would co-opt a wild creature for a nationalist cause.

The goshawk provides a crutch with which to escape the worldShe traces the uncomfortable links between hawks and Nazism and between British wildlife and xenophobia, from the military men who use hawks to naturalise killing from the skies, to her mother’s neighbours who ignore the immigrant history of British wildlife and take wild deer as a prompt to bemoan the loss of the Albion.

Macdonald makes nature writing new, and not just by acknowledging its nationalist tendencies. Her study of T.H. White entails a queering of the landscape, and she muses on the tradition of gay nature writers, for whom the countryside was a lover they could discuss, while their human relationships and desires were repeatedly muted and forbidden. Through Mabel the goshawk, Macdonald also probes the history of hawks as untameable women – to train is ‘to man’ in falconry parlance.

The wonder of the book lies in its perfect balance between cultural history and the visceral reality of hunting alongside a bird of prey: as she helps Mabel to break a rabbit’s neck, Macdonald wonders at the gap between bird as icon – of war, masculinity and rarity – and bird as bloody pheasant-poacher.

That gap is particularly stark with birds that near extinction. This is eco-writing at its very best, and reminds the reader of the genre’s two components: extinction mutes, and our lexicon and literature will suffer the loss of birds.

Because to most of us, animals figure as much as symbol as beast; they populate our stories as shorthand for the wild far more frequently than we encounter the feral in real life. Helen Macdonald’s falconry steps into that gap and tethers the great weight of hawk-history to the entrails that Mabel pecks from her fist.

This volume covers the zoological, historical, and autobiographical, and all is bound in grief. From the moment of her father’s death to the delivery of his memorial speech, Macdonald filters her tribute through the zoological moments they shared.

The goshawk provides a crutch with which to escape the world – for White it was a flight from his parents, public school life and his sexuality; for Macdonald it was a chance to steal away from the living and retreat towards the real carnage of death.

As she meditates on loss, she grows hawklike for lack of human company and, as much her writing brings the reality of hawking to life, she cannot quite do away with the birds as symbol either. Because that is what hawks will do – in their majesty and murder we cannot help but invest them with our own beasts within, and the austringer will always seek to thieve some aspect of the raptor’s wild.

Macdonald’s title betrays that chimeric hope: H is not for human, nor Helen. H is for Hawk.