H is for Hawk, a complex, remarkable memoir on grief, wilderness and nature

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

Published 2014 by Jonathan Cape , 300p

H is for Hawk is breathtaking. So lyrical and honest, so unexpected and so intense. I didn’t know much on falconry or on hawks before reading the book and I must admit that I had my suspicions regarding its content but it is exceptional.

Helen Macdonald is brilliant. She is an English writer, poet, historian, naturalist and Cambridge affiliated research scholar and all these sides of hers were incorporated in an amazing mixture of styles. The book is a memoir but also a biography of T.H. White, a celebration of nature and a guide of understanding and taming hawks.

Helen has always been obsessed with birds, since she was a child.

But I had an obsession. Birds. Birds of prey most of all. I was sure they were the best thing that had ever existed. My parents thought this obsession would go the way of the others: dinosaurs, ponies, volcanoes. It didn’t. It worsened. When I was six I tried to sleep every night with my arm folded behind my back like wings.

So when her father, a successful photojournalist, unexpectedly dies of heart attack she feels that the only form to deal with pain and depression is to isolate and try to tame a goshawk.

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English berefian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

Her goshawk is called Mabel, from the Latin amabilis, meaning lovable:

The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent. It was about to begin.

Like in a diary, Helen writes details of the slow process of taming and being tamed. Both human and hawk are scared, live frustration and experience anger; they come from two different worlds with distinctive perceptions on existence. As the hawk becomes tamer, Helen grows wilder.

Hawks aren’t social animals like dogs or horses; they understand neither coercion nor punishment. The only way to tame them is through positive reinforcement with gifts of food.

T.H. White, known for his Arthurian legends, haunted Helen since childhood. And this was mainly because of his book, The Goshawk, 1951, an honest depiction of his effort and fail to train a hawk.  An abused child with a tremendous fear of intimacy and homosexual desires, White

had taken something wild and free, something innocent and full of life, and fought with it…. White had thought he could tame the hawk without breaking its natural spirit. But all he has done is try to break it, over and over again.

But Helen has other reasons, she doesn’t want to escape her character, she wants to turn herself into a hawk. She assumes wilderness can heal her rage and nervousness, the stress and emptiness.

There are moments of hesitation, crying and anxiety but eventually Helen rebuilds herself and changes perspective. At her father’s memorial she realizes that Mabel is not human and

Human hands are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close. They’re not for breaking the necks of rabbits.

Mabel made Helen strong and helped her rediscover life. Their journeys in the countryside were privileges of regaining nature with its landscapes and multitude of species, some endangered.

I wish that we would not fight for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are. I wish we would fight, instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness.

Her nature descriptions are captivating. Actually the whole book is a delightful writing on connections – with birds, nature, with family, with life.


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