H Is for HawkBook - 2015
Destined to be a classic of nature writing, the story of how one woman trained a goshawk.
As a child Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer. She learned the arcane terminology and read all the classic books, including T. H. White’s tortured masterpiece, The Goshawk, which describes White’s struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest.
When her father dies and she is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.
H is for Hawk is a record of a spiritual journey—an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald’s struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming and her own untaming. At the same time, it’s a kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant and troubled novelist T. H. White, best known for The Once and Future King. It’s a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.
As John Vaillant’s The Tiger depicted the dangerous collision of people and nature, H is for Hawk evokes our deepest longings for something wild. With stunning language that that resonates long after the book’s conclusion, H is for Hawk is destined to be a classic of nature writing.
From the critics
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‘How you can talk of love for a bird after subjecting our wonderful predatory birds to such torture is beyond a normal mind,’ the letter ran. ‘Is there not enough cruelty in the world without adding to it for one’s amusement or hobby?’
I look down at my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she’d been fractious with hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I’d pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I’d thought I’d lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she’d helped mend, not make.
Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.
I think of all the complicated histories that landscapes have, and how easy it is to wipe them away, put easier, safer histories in their place. They are only safe for us. ... There are few plants other than crops, and few bees, or butterflies, for the soil is dressed and sprayed with chemicals that kill. Ten years ago there were turtle doves on this land. Thirty years ago there were corn buntings and enormous flocks of lapwings. Seventy years ago there were red-backed shrikes, wrynecks and snipe. Two hundred years ago, ravens and black grouse. All of them are gone.
Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard.
Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.
From her sunlit perch she descends to the hand I hold out in the shade of a hedge and I feel a surge of indescribable relief. I start shivering, cold and hot all at once.
In the imagination, everything can be restored, everything mended, wounds healed, stories ended.
White gives himself a new pupil to train: not a hawk, but the boy who will be king.
…you can reconcile the wild. You can bring it home with you.
‘A herd of deer,’ he says, beaming, then his expression folds into something I don’t recognise. ‘Doesn’t it gives you hope?’ he says suddenly. ‘Hope?’ ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in?’ I don’t know what to say…
The falconer and scientist Professor Tom Cade once described falconry as a kind of ‘high-intensity birdwatching’.
The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.
I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. Some had fixed themselves to the stars of elusive animals. Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens. Some sought wildness at a distance, others closer to home. ‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.
‘What am I searching for?’ ‘That you will only know when you find it.’ ‘Is it wisdom or manhood?’ ‘Perhaps it is love.’
...light. I closed my eyes against the glare and remembered the spider silk. I had walked all over it and had not seen it. I had not known it was there. It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.
Trained hawks didn’t catch animals. They caught quarry. They caught game.
I feel like White: a tyro, a fool, a beginner. An idiot.
I found there were myriad definitions of this thing called tragedy that had wormed its way through the history of literature; and the simplest of all was this: that it is the story of a figure who, through some moral flaw or personal failing, falls through force of circumstance to his doom.
I saw those nineteenth-century falconers were projecting onto their hawks all the male qualities they thought threatened by modern life, wildness, power, virility, independence and strength.
I look again she seems neither bird nor reptile, but a creature shaped by a million years of evolution for a life she’s not yet lived.
The tiny, hair-like feathers between her beak and eye – crines – are for catching blood so that it will dry, and flak…
He walks around the chapel, imaging the earth beneath him turning and muttering ad it senses the familiar hawk above, as the bones of farm labourers mutter when agricultural machinery passes over their forgotten tombs.
All these things had happened and my father had committed them to a memory that wasn’t just his own, but the world’s. My father’s life wasn’t about disappearance. His was a life that worked against it.
Henri Cartier-Bresson called the taking of a good photograph a decisive moment. ‘Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to clic the camera, he said. ‘The Moment!
The sparrow is caught mid-hop at exactly at the moment it takes the crumb from his fingers. And the expression on the man’s face is suffused with joy. He is wearing the face of an angel.
Both of us needed a break. I popped the hood back over her head. There. Fleeting panic, nerves afire, and then she relaxed because the day had turned to night and I had disappeared. The terror had gone. Hoodwinked.
In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the females so they are called tiercels, from …
For the boy, the string was a kind of wordless communication, a symbolic means of joining. It was a denial of separation. Holding tight.
…more expert you were, the less likely you were to call anything by its proper name.
Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and the react to stimuli literally without thinking.
After losing one’s father isn’t just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.
Putting a lens between himself and the world was a defence against more than physical danger: it shielded him from other things he had to photograph: awful things, tragic things: accidents, train crashes, the aftermath of city bombs. He’d worried…
…can’t help but think of a line written by the poet Marianne Moore: The cure for loneliness is solitude. And the solitude of the pilot in the spy-plane, seeing everything, touching nothing, reading The Once and Future King fifty thousand feet above…
He wonders if this is the most important book he’s ever written. Not because it will make his fortune. But because it will save him.
‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside.’ He could not imagine a human love returned. He had to displace his desires onto the landscape, that great, blank green field that cannot love you back, but cannot…
Feral. He wanted to be free. He wanted to be ferocious. He wanted to be fey, a fairy, ferox. All those elements of himself he’d pushed away, his sexuality, his desire for cruelty, for mastery: all these were suddenly there in the figure of the hawk.
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Fascinating if a wee bit tedious story of a woman's efforts to train a challenging Goshawk with literary reference to TH White as well.
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