In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald braids three narrative strands: memoir, triggered by the abrupt death of her father; a treatise on falconry and hawks, particularly goshawks, the largest and most unruly of the hawks; and a biography of T.H. White, best known as author of The Once and Future King but also a man tormented in a distinctly English way, a failure as a schoolteacher and an even less competent falconer, whose struggles with his submerged homosexuality taint everything he attempts.
Macdonald’s prose is a blade slicing along the differences between the English language and the American – you may read Jane Austen or D.H. Lawrence without feeling alien, but Macdonald’s word choice and phraseology are purely English, highlighting its separateness from the way we speak and write on this side of the Atlantic. Her vocabulary is well-suited to her subjects. Here’s her first sight of her hawk:
“Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. 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.”
In reading her father’s plane-spotting journals she understands how he developed his patience and powers of observation, which enabled his success as a professional photographer. She recounts a captured moment:
“…a black-and-white photograph my father had taken many years ago of an elderly street-cleaner with a white goatee beard, wrinkled socks and down-at-heel shoes. Crumpled work trousers, work gloves, a woollen beret. The camera is low, on the pavement: Dad must have crouched in the road to take it. The man is bending down, his besom of birch twigs propped against his side. He has taken off one of his gloves, and between the thumb and first finger of his bare right hand he is offering a crumb of bread to a sparrow on the kerbstone. The sparrow is caught mid-hop at exactly at the moment it takes the crumb from his fingers. And the expression on the man’s face is suffused with joy. He is wearing the face of an angel.”
Her father’s death more catalyst than cause, she goes deep into her own wildness, withdrawing from human company. Training the solitary goshawk consumes her, and she intersperses her own experiences with T.H. White’s ragged efforts. She knows more about falconry than he did at the time he wrote The Goshawk, but doubts herself at every turn.
She writes also about threats to wildlife – from climate change, from pesticide and herbicide use that kill off first the insects, then the animals and birds that fed on them, till very few creatures remain. After a visit to a California condor captive breeding center, she writes: “I think of what wild animals are in our imagination. And how they are disappearing – not just from the wild but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind.”
Macdonald is balefully honest – about her grief, doubts, fury, the kinship she develops with her goshawk, mastery of which is analogous to mastery of herself – a self which has become feral, implacable, merciless, and terrified. Together, she and this bird learn to navigate the world, one leading then the other in their quest for equilibrium, trust and certainty. Observing the goshawk’s instincts, she identifies some of her own. There are things the bird must be trained to do, but other things she already knows, primal and incorruptible. Macdonald seeks this ground within herself, even as she recognizes it in her young charge.
This beautifully-written book skewers slipshod reasoning and dangerous metaphors. She has to become nearly a hawk to finally understand what being human is, and to value the distinction. The hawk’s blood-lust is part of who she is, but the hardening that lets the author kill a rabbit with her bare hands is borrowed from her predatory partner. She observes how easily we devolve into killers who don’t question the cost of shrugging off our humanity, and shows that we may admire the grace and strength of a bird of prey without aspiring to be one.