H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Grove Press, 300 pages
H Is for Hawk is such an original book that it resists classification. Its publisher describes it as “a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir.” That depends on your definition of nature. Charles Darwin thought of nature as an “entangled bank” with many plants and complex, interdependent creatures, all “produced by laws acting around us.” Halfway through this book, I felt I hadn’t been in nature much. Rather, in visceral prose, Helen Macdonald’s memoir captures how humans have tried to tame one element of nature — in this case, raptors — to either approach the natural world or ease their loneliness.
Macdonald was drawn to hawks as a young girl, browsing secondhand shops with her father for falconry books. When she was in her thirties, her father died suddenly, which sent her spiraling into a state of isolation. As an antidote of sorts, she acquired a goshawk from a breeder and set out to train it. Though Macdonald’s grief over the loss of her father is clearly very real, how she writes about it can at times feel one-dimensional — making her readers long for scenes from her family life so they can understand why her father’s death has so unhinged her and why she can’t find solace in her mother, her friends, or her work.
In lieu of such insights, Macdonald gives us a history of falconry, rendering in detail the life and work of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, who wrote about, among many things, learning the art of falconry ( The Goshawk ). Macdonald’s portrayal of White’s reclusive personal life and his disastrous attempts to tame a goshawk are mostly interesting, yet the author can sometimes make us suspect that she is using him as a stand-in for herself. To choose the memoir as a storytelling form and then to remain quiet about the elephant in the room can introduce a strain between the writer and her audience; it’s a testament to Macdonald’s skill that she holds the reader in her spell despite her British reticence.
When the memoir works, it soars. Mabel, the hawk, keeps Macdonald in the present, and the writer gives a blow-by-blow account of what this “bloody great” hawk, and the obsession to train it, means to her. The story is a telling narrative about the isolation of modern life. In a surreal, moving passage, she senses she has become a mother to her hawk. “There are thorn-scratches all over me from where I dived through the hedge, and an ache in my heart I can’t place. ... I look at the hawk, the pheasant, the hawk. And everything changes. The hawk stops being a thing of violent death. She becomes a child. ... A baby hawk that’s just worked out who she is. What she’s for. I reach down and start, unconsciously as a mother helping a child with her dinner, plucking the pheasant with the hawk.”
Macdonald rightly suggests that wild animals are no longer a part of our lives, and thus our understanding of them is limited. But is developing personal relationships with wild creatures a solution? It can be unsafe, for instance, when people keep cheetahs or alligators as pets and irresponsible if they abandon them. To survive in their wild state, animals do not need entry into our living rooms — they need habitats that are sizable enough to sustain Darwin’s entangled bank.
The goshawk in Macdonald’s home keeps her in a functioning state, but it can’t prevent her from going numb. “I could not hear my mother’s pain. I could not feel my own.” She cocoons herself with the hawk, echoing White’s obsession with caves and “dark and private spaces.” White went to some lengths to “become invisible” and to experience “the joy of being free from the pain of being seen.”
Yet both Macdonald and White do want to be seen — in the right way. It is a gift and a miracle when someone does that for us. Even though Macdonald’s father, a photographer, may have teasingly called her an absent-minded professor, he most likely appreciated the discipline it takes to pursue falconry and saw his daughter as that charming girl fascinated by hawks. Now that her father is dead, perhaps no one will see her — a grown woman — in quite that same way again. Does the loss of her father also mean the loss of a cherished identity? That might be one reason she pairs herself so passionately with a goshawk: to reclaim that identity.
In the second half of the book, Macdonald gets to the crux of her crisis: “No father, no partner, no child, no job, no home.” Not every human life has to be framed in this kind of a narrative; however, the author intuits correctly that these bonds can stabilize us in times of loss. No wonder it’s been so difficult for her to cope.
As a girl, Macdonald had wanted to disappear into her hawk-watching. Now she wants to disappear into her hawk. She feels most alive when she hunts with her hawk, when she leaves her human side behind. But in the end, she knows, as do her readers, that to be fully functional, she must re-enter some sort of community. No matter what drives some of us into isolation, we can’t be AWOL forever.