Fine feath­ered friend­ships

Takes flight with two me­moirs about life with birds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WHEN she was 12, Bri­tish writer He­len Macdon­ald spent a mem­o­rable day with fal­con­ers. A “child fal­conry bore”, who de­voured ev­ery avail­able book on the sport, the young He­len trudged across fields with the oblig­ing landed gen­try, then watched a goshawk slaugh­ter a pheas­ant. Soon, all the hawks, “pale-eyed psy­chopaths”, de­camped into high trees where they sulked, ig­nor­ing their masters’ calls.

Macdon­ald never for­got those birds. But when she be­came a fal­coner she chose to fly their smaller, friend­lier cousins, the “sharp­winged, bul­let-heavy” fal­cons, which her child­hood books de­clared the finest birds on earth.

H is for Hawk, Macdon­ald’s mem­oir, de­scribes a life­long pas­sion for fal­conry, which was reignited after the un­ex­pected death of her fa­ther. Dur­ing a grief so in­tense she felt com­posed of “dully burn­ing metal” the au­thor re­peat­edly dreamed of hawks. Be­guiled by their abil­ity to slip into “a wilder world from which hu­mans had been ut­terly erased”, she re­mem­bered a wounded goshawk that, once re­leased, seemed to van­ish through “a rent in the damp, Glouces­ter­shire air”. Soon the au­thor, once so loyal to fal­cons, had adopted a hawk, Ma­bel. Strictly speak­ing, she’d be­come an aus­tringer.

H is for Hawk is an in­tel­li­gent, lyri­cal hy­brid. It is rig­or­ously re­searched na­ture writ­ing, mem­oir and his­tory, but with a fidelity to none of th­ese forms. In this it re­calls the re­cent work of Amer­i­can cul­tural his­to­rian Re­becca Sol­nit, who blends the con­fes­sional with med­i­ta­tions on his­tory, land­scape and be­long­ing. Macdon­ald’s nar­ra­tive, shaped by grief, is fre­quently breath­less, full of preda­tory blood­lust and hu­man an­guish. Her prose is by turns lushly lyri­cal and ex­ple­tive-strewn, es­chew­ing the cool for­mal­ity of the pre­dom­i­nantly mas­cu­line field of na­ture writ­ing. After a fal­coner once shared his “se­cret” for deal­ing with hawks — “Mur­der sorts ’ em out” — Macdon­ald “was all, Bloody hell! I’m stick­ing with fal­cons”. Un­like Martin Windrow’s mem­oir, which I’ll come to in a mo­ment, Macdon­ald freely ex­plores the in­tense emo­tions that were for her in­ter­linked with fal­conry. This is a piti­less por­trait of a woman un­der­go­ing a “quiet, very dan­ger­ous” mad­ness.

By the late 19th cen­tury, goshawks had been hunted to ex­tinc­tion in Eng­land. But in the 1960s fal­con­ers be­gan im­port­ing “huge pale Taiga for­est” hawks from Europe. Now there are 450 breed­ing pairs, which gives “the lie to the thought that the wild is al­ways some­thing un­touched by hu­man hearts”. The wild, Macdon­ald notes, “can be hu­man work”. After loss, though, she has a sharp sense that “all of us were cling­ing to a world al­ready gone”. But the brac­ingly phys­i­cal business of train­ing her hawk, a creature “big­ger than me and more im- H is for Hawk By He­len Macdon­ald Jonathan Cape, 320pp, $34.99 (HB) The Owl Who Liked Sit­ting on Cae­sar By Martin Windrow Corgi, 320pp, $19.99 por­tant”, seems to al­le­vi­ate grief’s earthly weight. She must train her rap­tor to fly freely and re­turn to her fist after hunt­ing, a tra­jec­tory that mir­rors her own con­flict­ing de­sire to es­cape and be­long.

Macdon­ald is the au­thor of Fal­con (2006), a nat­u­ral his­tory, and the po­etry vol­ume Shaler’s Fish (2001). We find a poetic sen­si­bil­ity in this lat­est work with its lush de­scrip­tions of land­scapes: the Breck­land for­est “washed pewter with frost”, its earth stud­ded with “bony shoul­ders and blades of flint” from Ne­olithic times. Oc­ca­sion­ally the vol­ume of im­agery and Macdon­ald’s dis­cur­sive style di­lutes the po­tency of her de­scrip­tions. Yet this ac­cu­mu­la­tion is eas­ily for­given be­cause it helps con­vey the au­thor’s fer­vid en­ergy.

Grief is a type of wild­ness, full of pri­mal rage. For Macdon­ald, it’s also am­bi­ent with shame. As she strug­gles to train her goshawk, she wor­ries that “what made the hawk flinch from me was the same thing that had driven away the man I’d fallen for after my fa­ther’s death … some­thing vile that only he and the hawk could see”. Yet Ma­bel’s self-con­tained crea­ture­li­ness al­lows both com­pan­ion­ship and soli­tude.

Macdon­ald’s schol­arly back­ground adds another di­men­sion to her mem­oir. Study­ing the Vic­to­rian lit­er­a­ture on fal­conry she finds the hawk, un­like the stately fal­con, in­vari­ably char­ac­terised as fe­male, hys­ter­i­cal and patho­log­i­cal. Fal­conry is a tra­di­tion­ally mas­cu­line hobby (to train the bird, after all is to “man” it), and — be­cause it re­quires large tracts of coun­try — the pre­serve of wealthy landown­ers. But Ma­bel is no sulky fool. She’s play­ful, crunch­ing pa­per with a “gnam gnam”, and shiv­er­ing with hap­pi­ness as her master trum­pets “Hello Ma­bel” through a rolled mag­a­zine. Her in­nate “preda­tory tax­onomies” help her recog­nise draw­ings of par­tridges and pheas­ants in a book full of oth­er­wise un­ap­pe­tiz­ing birds.

But the pri­mary his­tor­i­cal fo­cus in this mem­oir is re­served for au­thor TH White. As a child Macdon­ald was mag­ne­tised by White’s 1952 clas­sic, The Goshawk. On reread­ing she recog­nises his ac­count of fal­conry as a “metaphysical bat­tle” reach­ing back to a Pu­ri­tan tra­di­tion of spir­i­tual contest. Best known for his re­work­ing of the Arthurian legend The Sword in the Stone, White was a school­teacher in the 1930s and ho­mo­sex­ual. Macdon­ald reads The Goshawk as a work of “sup­pressed ho­mo­sex­ual de­sire”. Among the “monk­ish elite” of fal­con­ers White found men “who felt a love that other peo­ple did not un­der­stand”.

De­spite shun­ning hu­man con­tact, Macdon­ald is self-mock­ing, re­flec­tive and at­tuned to the sen­sory plea­sures of the hawk­ing fields. Train­ing Ma­bel in­volves an im­mer­sion in wilder­ness, but it’s a “be­guil­ing but dan­ger­ous lie” that na­ture brings so­lace. I was re­minded here of Amer­i­can poet Mark Doty’s lovely mem­oir Dog Years on the dogs that helped him through the death of his part­ner from AIDS. Doty’s “speech-

By the late 19th cen­tury, goshawks had been hunted to ex­tinc­tion in Eng­land

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