H is for Hawk

I began Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk twice; events in my own orbit circling by so close I found I was effortlessly undone within minutes of starting. It was unfair to continue, and so I picked it up a couple of weeks later. It was probably a wise decision: H is for Hawk is a record of how one person moves through grief, from losing a father to wanting to leave the world and all its concerns behind, to trying to regain a position, a place among the living. It is not an easy transition, and it is done with an honesty that is, at times, simply overwhelming. It is also the story of a woman training a Goshawk, the bulkiest, the bloodiest, the deadliest, the scariest of hawks. A creature that operates somewhere in “the borders between life and death.” A wild and dark thing, demanding of effort and feral understanding.

And finally, it is about T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, who as a young man decided to embrace that same feral impulse, to try and train a Goshawk for himself. His trials and tribulations Macdonald follows, and observes, and picks apart and seeks to understand; his running from perceived failings, his internal battles, his sexuality. As a child, Macdonald had found the result of White’s travails, The Goshawk, bewildering and incomprehensible, and him cruel and difficult. Across sixty years they fall to training their hawks – White with Gos, Macdonald with Mabel (“there’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name”). And so doing, they step into the wild.

H picks its way through grief, stepping through the fallen leaves of a life, away from everybody and everything; roots and fallen branches hidden from view, the path into the woods darker and darker. The hawk leading the way.

“The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten.”

She and the hawk kill. Mabel hunting and catching rabbits, Macdonald offing them before they suffer (Mabel would simply eat them, rip them apart until they died). It is this, the human urge to prevent suffering, that begins to form a crucial realisation in the process, the path through the grief.

And what grief it is, although, of course. Of course. The precise and lonely landscape is all our own; here, her own. This much is always true, but the honesty on display is quite extraordinary. Elsewhere, I might find it mawkish but Macdonald – what is the phrase she uses? – tiptoes toward darkness. In stages we get there. We drop into moments that are devastating and utterly, intimately personal and I wept, I never cry reading, ever. But I did, and not just once. One instance, there is a key, that is all I’ll say, pointedly there is a key, and it unlocked me, picked me apart and left me heartbroken but happy, all at the same time. The glossary of falconry, the histories and cultural colour, are fascinating, and Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel, through all their brilliantly frustrating and rewarding adventures, never fails to excite.

By strange coincidence, I read The Goshawk last year (and then started back on page 1 and re-read it again straight away). I think I loved it, but it was baffling and alien and often obtuse and irritating. H dissects it carefully, but with warmth and care, and ultimately, despite the long-held misgivings of childhood disapproval – a grown-up salute at the very end punched a smile right through the page – affection.

Ultimately, Mabel has to go away for her Summer moulting, to change. Everything will change. Not just her feathers. Even her eyes. But it’ll still be Mabel. The protecting spirit, the “little household god”. Finally, the presiding force will also change. H is for Hawk isn’t really nature writing in the sense that I know it, although there is much of it in here, it is much more than that, and what it is is deeply, wonderfully affecting.

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