H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s best seller, has been in the back of my mind for about two months now when I finished reading it. I hesitate to recommend it since it seems suitable for a very small audience, and yet its appeal has been fairly universal, its acclaim unquestioned. It’s a quirky book, one part memoir, one part training manual, and one part psychological analysis of T.H. White, the writer of such books as Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King.
The book arises out of the need for Macdonald to come to grips with the death of her father: her pain of loss, her bitterness toward the fact of mortality, her confusion about a direction in life, her need for love, for purpose. Almost as if to avoid addressing these issues, she takes on the challenge of adopting and training a goshawk, which she names Mabel, in the ancient art of falconry. Over time Mabel becomes a powerful force of nature, capable of seeking out prey with such precision and grace and, yes, brutality, as to inspire awe in those of us who are merely human.
Ironically, on the journey to satisfy her blood lust, to fulfill her role as predator, Mabel ends up helping Macdonald appreciate the value and beauty of Nature’s rules, to understand better the complex relationship between life and death, and to respect the responsibility and distinct virtue of being human. Through memory and tradition and, indeed, consciousness, we make associations, we see connections, we fashion lives that have meaning and structure worlds without end.
Macdonald’s foray into the life and writings of T.H. White may seem offhand and even off-putting at times, especially since so much is made of his confused sexual identity and his parents’ abuse, but it’s her re-reading of White’s The Goshawk that ultimately propels her on her own journey. In her determination not to make the same mistakes White makes in training his goshawk, she becomes obsessed to do things right, to win Mable over, to make her father proud.
In the end, whether by her own occasional failings, sheer exhaustion, or the passage of time, she becomes much more forgiving of White and able to see in his writing an attempt to triumph over a failed life. In effect, she sees something of herself in White, and in Mable, and revels in the opportunity she is given to make sense of it all. In effect, she realizes that with her father’s death “she “was in ruins” and in need of rebuilding herself. The book, then, becomes the story of her becoming a hawk, which is everything she thought she wanted to be: “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”
She discovers, of course, that what she needed was just the opposite. And so, like the Wart in The Sword in the Stone, she takes on the guise of an animal to learn first-hand what it means to be human. What begins as an impulse to escape the world, however, to flee to the wild, to cleave to the earth and let “’nature in her green, tranquil woods heal and soothe all afflictions,’” (John Muir) ends with a recognition that doing so was “a beguiling but dangerous lie.” She learns that “hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”
In her words,
Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel I’ve learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.
More to the point, Macdonald learns to re-connect with people, to give of herself, to embrace the pain of being human as part of what makes life worthwhile.
All this, however, does little to express the impact of the book, the power of its prose, or the beauty of its depiction of the natural world. Macdonald is so intimately involved with Mabel that we come to see with her eyes, to pay attention to details that ordinarily we’d miss. Consider this passage as an example:
The world she lives in is not mine. Life is faster for her; time runs slower. Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird… This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarized light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precision that she can see with fierce clarity things I can’t possibly resolve from the generalised blur… I’m standing there, my sorry human eyes overwhelmed by light and detail, while the hawk watches everything with the greedy intensity of a child filling in a colouring book, scribbling joyously, blocking in colour, making the pages its own.
Whether describing Mable preening, the training process itself, the rigors of the hunt, or the lush forests and fields of England, Macdonald combines magic with ministry. For me, the strength of the book lies in its glorious detail. The goshawk becomes for Macdonald a kind of shaman who is able to “cross borders that humans cannot,” a messenger between this world and the next, a bridge between the human and natural worlds. At a time when more than ever we seek to remake Nature in our own image, shape it according to our needs, take for granted its endless bounty, this is a book you might want to read.