H is for Hawk is a memoir on how to tame grief

When the poet Helen Macdonald loses her father, she seeks solace in the ancient pursuit of falconry. Can Mabel the goshawk heal her hurt? Nature writer Time Dee enjoys a wondrous book of loss and recovery.
The prose is demotic making it as once singular and lively.
The prose is demotic making it as once singular and lively.

A father dies. His grieving daughter tames and trains a hawk. Doing this she is taken down to the darkest places and lifted up to the brightest. A bird helps a woman make sense of her wounded life: it sounds like a fable but most of it happened just a couple of years ago within earshot of a UK motorway.

The author Helen Macdonald knows how to take a goshawk for a walk on the outskirts of Cambridge, how to fly the bird from her fist, and how to come home with a pheasant or two for supper. She describes it wonderfully. That such knowledge and such a bloodied or wild life is possible in our time and can be written about so well, means that H is for Hawk [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk] will earn its place among the good books that have been written about how our lives might still best meet that which isn’t human in nature.

It would be no less accurate, however, to say that this is also a good book about people and their pets. For wild life isn’t really the subject here at all. H is for Helen as well as for Hawk. And the book is hers as much as the bird’s. It is her hawk, too: a captive-bred female goshawk that Macdonald buys for £800 and calls Mabel. (I should mention that Helen is a near-neighbour and a friend although I have never met her bird.) She gets given a floury-pinafore sort of name because it seems bad luck to shackle your hawk in language commensurate with what you want it to do. And what you want it to do (even today, even within earshot of an A-road) is to fly sort-of-free while still coming to your beck and call, to be in hock to you but to kill as it would were it wild. Don’t call your bird Slayer, therefore, or Odin or Baal. Call her Mabel and keep the old magic alive.

The magic, that is, of this gawky but ancient dance between grounded men and airborne raptors, of curtailed freedoms, of breaking down a wild thing into something feral, making hunting into an art form and turning hunters into artists, staging an act of natural theatre, and dreaming of various species of human lift-off. Falconry has its own long-evolved language, lore and literature. Its lexicon is rich and its imaginative reach near global. Macdonald has spent time working as a falconer in the Middle East where old traditions are more alive than perhaps anywhere else.

H is for Hawk adds its own beautiful noise to this busy man-bird intersection. Macdonald’s plaited memoir of loss and recovery is a true story sadly told. At its centre is the devastating impact of the sudden death of Macdonald’s father and the unlikely rescue that her rediscovered interest in falconry brings. As a child, she was fascinated by birds of prey and later trained and worked as a falconer. The death of her father and the depression that followed either provoked or coincided with (it isn’t fully spelt out here) a felt need to feel some feet on her fist once more and manning Mabel into a half-pet half-wild-thing goes as far as might seem possible toward mending a broken human heart.

Macdonald describes herself as a writer, naturalist, historian and falconer. Her prose is certainly very good (mobile, demotic, electrified – making whatever she writes singular but lively) and when she marries her factual know-how (previously she has written a cultural history of falcons) with her poet’s eye, it is excellent (her poetry collection, Shaler’s Fish, is a bony, obtuse and rather fugitive affair by comparison). She is matchless when she writes about how her hawk looks and about how her heart beats as a consequence: the only two living things surviving in her life for much of her book: “She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.”

Richard Mabey wrote about a nature cure in a not-unrelated memoir of breakdown and distress and H is for Hawk shares some of his concerns and remedies. But though Helen falls in deeply with Mabel and they spend chapters sitting together, with the curtains drawn in a small house in Cambridge, watching daytime TV and avoiding the outside world (a depressive’s torpor doubling usefully as a regime to habituate a part-wild bird), the book is also properly sceptical about just how far a bird of prey rather than, say, a course of antidepressant drugs, might put a mind back together that had been floored by grief. Falconers use the word imping to describe their planting of feather extensions in a damaged wing: Macdonald knows both how and when to glue things together but also when no amount of glue will make mismatched items set.

At some risk to her own project, Macdonald wants her goshawk to be stalked by The Goshawk, the 1951 memoir by T H White (the author of the Arthurian adventure, The Once and Future King) about his (mostly) hopeless attempts to keep and train and fly a goshawk in southern England in the 1930s. The Goshawk is a short book, a bravura performance, written with self-lacerating energy in slashed-about chapters. It is honest, funny and tragic. But White was (mostly) a disaster as a man: abused as a boy he became a would-be abuser, fell for both Hitler and sadism, and, late in life, wrote a novel about spanking schoolboys. And the danger here is that the invited guest might poison his host: his species of brokenness and the first aid he thought falconry offered runs the risk of being leakily toxic.

Macdonald has to defend White or at least her interest in his “haunting” (he takes up a fair portion of her book and is crucial for several of her turns and restarts). “White’s politics were deeply unfortunate,” she writes at one point, as though they were a kind of accident. Elsewhere, she grieves over her fellow austringer or goshawk handler, his out-of-step wrongness and his unlovable awfulness. Yet even if we are to trust the tale more than its teller (The Goshawk surely is a book worth having), it is hard to be convinced that what remains of White expels enough of his poison to justify his prominence in this otherwise heartfelt book.

Along with her own sad tale and her account of White’s, Macdonald weaves still bleaker threads. Her book is imped with weaponry. I started making notes every time a warplane was mentioned or an armoured analogy was made until my copy of her book became thick with marks. Her father was a plane-spotter as a child (in a moving passage she describes his notebooks) and his daughter has looked to the skies for hunters both metalled and feathered. It is no accident, although less sinister, that pilots talk of earning their wings. Macdonald likes the lingo too, and every plane is properly named, whilst Mabel leaves her gloved fist with the “recoil of a .303 rifle”. Nor is it just flying and firing, the Cold War culture of fallout and spying crowd the imaginative landscape here, too. The book begins in Breckland, one of the most militarised areas of Britain, and it never really moves far away. But rising from the counter-pastoral of all this painted metal comes an oddly romantic mist. The bird that hunts and kills makes a kind of heraldry for our dark-hearted murderousness, the hawk a mascot for our war games and, by the associations we have made, innocent raptors are hobbled or creanced.

Like its predecessors, H is for Hawk is an exceptional book of twisted growth. It is about how things mostly go wrong most of the time in our lives, and how we must therefore make the most of any brightness we catch falling through the air. Sometimes that will be a bomb but sometimes it will be a bird and, every now and again, it will be one and the same.

Tim Dee is the author of Four Fields and The ­Running Sky: A Birdwatching Life.


Published: August 14, 2014 04:00 AM


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