Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and Costa Book Award-winning book H is for Hawk is a narrative braid made up of three interwoven strands. It is simultaneously a memoir of one woman’s struggle with grief after the death of her father; a riveting account of falconry through her acquiring and training a young, female goshawk; and a book about the tortured life of T.H. White, author of the children’s classic based on the Arthurian legend, Once and Future King.
As a child, Helen Macdonald was obsessed with birds of prey. The picture she paints is of a nerdy, bookish girl, passionate and introverted, as much in love with the technical language of hawking with its own arcane poetry as with the birds themselves. She carried this love unabated into adulthood, and when in 2007, her father – the press photographer Alisdair MacDonald – died suddenly of a heart attack, her immediate response was to order a goshawk.
Hawks (as I now know) cannot be domesticated. They are captured in the wild and trained: each hawk down the generations must be trained from scratch and, left to its own devices, reverts to its natural, feral state. Reading a book on the subject, the young schoolmaster T.H. White was captivated: “The word ‘feral’ has a kind of magical potency,” he explained in one of his letters, “allied to two other words, ‘ferocious’ and ‘free’.” He decides to train a goshawk, embarking on the task armed only with a few ancient and outdated books on the subject. The subsequent battle of wills between man and bird is documented in his book, named after his bird, Gos. From the passages excerpted by Macdonald, it is a gruelling and disturbing read, in which White subdues this wild creature – or attempts to – with the same kind of sadistic cruelty that he himself had experienced as a boy in English public school.
In his introduction to a contemporary edition, nature writer and activist Stephen Bodio calls it “a book about excruciatingly bad falconry [and] the best book about falconry, its feel, its emotions, and its flavour ever written.” White himself agreed – at least with the former assessment: “It is all rubbish. It is just what a very young, romantic, inefficient austringer might write. The twelve real living falconers will hate it and despise it in their guts.”
As to the latter, Bodio may now have to concur that the ‘best book about falconry’ is Macdonald’s own. Not only is she a brilliant nature writer, Macdonald’s command of language is ferociously exacting. Setting eyes on Mabel, her goshawk, for the first time, she struggles to capture the feeling of shock and awe: “[the hawk seemed like] 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.”
She chronicles her own spiral into depression with the same raw honesty as she brings to her descriptions of the emotionally gruelling process of taming her hawk. As Helen accustoms Mabel to human society, she herself becomes more hawk-like, wilder, shunning her own species like a hawk bating from its perch, gripped by terror and frustration.
The death of her father renders Mcdonald almost literally deranged – as though her internal organs are reordered, wrenched from their normal positions, unable to perform the simplest task. People in the street felt like alien entities. She begins to see like a hawk – literally, rather than metaphorically. It’s not that she hones in on distant objects, but that she scans her surroundings like a wild thing, startled by sudden noises, alarmed by these lumbering two-legged creatures, unable to understand concepts like ‘pushchair’, ‘baby’ or ‘car’.
The boy Wart in T.H. White’s Once and Future King, struggles with a similar conundrum when during his education under the wizard Merlin, he is transformed into other creatures – first fish, then hawk, ant, goose, badger. As an ant, Wart discovers a ‘helpless feeling’ that “There were no words for happiness, for freedom, for liking, nor were there any words for the opposites. He felt like a dumb man trying to shout ‘Fire!’”
It’s a similar conundrum to that posed in philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ How does it feel to be an animal? What is it like inside a bird’s head? How do humans think at all? What is this thing called ‘consciousness’? I sort of like the idea that this is known, in cognitive science and philosophical circles as, simply, ‘the Hard Problem’. So much easier to think of animals as being, basically,‘a bit like us’. Which leads me to wonder what is the opposite of ‘anthropomorphism’? Is it even possible?
Reading Mcdonald’s descriptions of Mabel, trying to understand her quintessential ‘hawkishness’, I was reminded of Mark Haddon’s excellent explanation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s phrase, ‘Les animaux sont bons à penser’. Haddon argues that what the anthropologist meant was not ‘Animals are good to think with’ but ‘Animals are good to think’: “Good to think with. Good to think. It’s the difference between a spanner and a hand.”
In titling her book like a child’s primer, Macdonald’s meaning is clear – H is for Hawk the way A is for Apple: it’s as simple, as fundamental, as that. A world without hawks is like language without a letter – a terrible impoverishment, that leaves us unable to express important things: running around our burning anthills unable to raise the alarm. Animals and birds – or, perhaps more accurately ‘the wild’ in general – enables and enriches our emotional, linguistic and cognitive mindscape, and books like Helen Macdonald’s are a potent, timely reminder in our increasingly animal-empty world that without the non-human, we become less than human ourselves.