Fine feathered friendships
Takes flight with two memoirs about life with birds
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