H Is for Hawk by He­len Macdon­ald, Grove Press, 300 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Priyanka Ku­mar

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.

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