After photojournalist Alisdair Macdonald suffered a fatal heart attack while working, his daughter Helen decided to deal with her grief by training, or manning, a goshawk. It was the last rational decision she would make for some time. The story of Macdonald’s grief, of training the goshawk Mabel, and of how writer T.H. White’s work informed her experience is wound together in the remarkable H Is for Hawk.
Some little girls play with dolls. Others are horse-crazy. From childhood, Macdonald was obsessed with falconry. Yet she was hesitant about acquiring her own bird. Goshawks are different from the more commonly trained sparrowhawk: they are larger, more aggressive, reputedly more difficult to train. They are to sparrowhawks, Macdonald writes, as leopards are to housecats. Most of us prefer the latter in our living rooms.
Nevertheless, shortly after her father’s death, a bereaved Macdonald meets a man carrying two boxes: one carries Macdonald’s hawk. Mistakenly shown the wrong goshawk, the younger bird, she asks if she might have it anyway. The birder consents.
Mabel is two pounds, two ounces of accipitral (hawklike, rapacious) power. With Mabel perched on her fist, Macdonald plummets into a world nearly devoid of human contact. Telephone calls with her mother become poorly executed acts of will. A visit with a former student ends abruptly as Macdonald flees the coffeehouse. Invited to a luncheon with Mabel, Macdonald feels herself “hollow and unhoused”. An entry in Mabel’s training journal contains the following amendment, directed at those inquiring into Macdonald’s well-being:
“I wish they would FUCK OFF AND LEAVE ME ALONE. “
The days, she writes “were very dark”.
H Is for Hawk chronicles Macdonald’s bleak grief in an utterly unique manner. While pockets of falconers exist today, much as practitioners of dressage and archery do, they are perhaps less commonly occurring in modern culture than, say, skateboarders. When describing this book to a friend— it’s a memoir! About grief and hawks and T.H. White!—I got a strange look. But H Is for Hawk is all those things, and it’s so beautifully written that even readers unable to tell robins from parakeets will be entranced. The book is sui generis, not exactly about grief or birds or English gentleman writers, yet it’s about all those things.
Macdonald writes that T.H. White is necessary to her book. The author of The Once and Future King was a failed austringer (keeper of goshawks) who wrote of his disastrous experience in The Goshawk. Published in 1951, the book is an anti-manual of sorts, one Macdonald refers to at length. It is testimony to her character that she remains sympathetic to White even as she describes his horrifying mistreatment of a goshawk.
In 1936 White left a teaching position to rent an English cottage, where he hoped to create an idyll. There he acquired the goshawk he named Gos. One need not know a thing about hawks or their training to be sickened by White’s treatment of Gos, upon whom he projected an abusive childhood and his own strangled sexuality. He overfed the bird, then grew enraged when it refused food. He deprived Gos of sleep, reciting Shakespeare and playing opera at the poor thing. In a misguided attempt to acclimatize Gos, White took him everywhere—into town, into bars, around barking dogs. This is hardly the worst of his mistreatment.
Macdonald makes none of White’s mistakes. Although she loves Mabel, she never anthropomorphizes the bird beyond giving her a classically English name. This clear-eyed stance allows readers unfamiliar with goshawks — or with any birds, for that matter — to see them entirely afresh. Life with a goshawk is nothing like the companionship of cats or dogs. Macdonald does not call Mabel silly endearments (at least, not here) or sneak her inappropriate table scraps. She is sternly practical about Mabel’s care. Her weight is carefully tracked. Moderated walks gradually expose Mabel to diverse stimuli. That she is a bird of prey, by nature a killer, is an inexorable, accepted fact. The dead chicks and rabbits necessary for a healthy avian diet are piled in the freezer with all the ceremony used for storing boxed waffles.
Goshawks aren’t just killers. As she sits reading one afternoon, Macdonald notices Mabel’s head tilting like baby falcons do during play. Intrigued, Macdonald offers her a crumpled paper ball. Mabel gnaws delightedly: “gnam, gnam, gnam.” Rolling up a magazine, Macdonald peers through one end; arranging herself at the other, Mabel peers back. When Macdonald booms a hello through the same magazine, the bird “shivers” happily. Macdonald is first pleased, then saddened. None of the falconry manuals authored by her mentors discuss goshawks at play. They are too busy training them.
The male world of austringing can be more than dour. Pleased with Mabel’s progress, she takes the hawk to visit a friend. This friend’s husband was once quite rude, but Macdonald is feeling forgiving, a mood that rapidly evaporates when the man once again behaves badly, dismissing Mabel’s astonishing progress as “gendered”. His reasoning? Macdonald is female, so is Mabel. Unfortunately, this chauvinist fool is not alone. Back home, Macdonald pages through the experts: Humphrey and Evans, Gilbert Blaine, Frank Illingworth, Charles Hawkins Fisher. All describe the female goshawk using adjectives once lobbed at Victorian women: sulky, moody, contrary.
“Mabel, this is very dubious,” Macdonald says to her magnificent goshawk.
Indeed it is. Macdonald wonders if any of these male falconers stopped to consider whether they might be the root of goshawk misbehavior?
When not impossibly sexist, falconry is filled with wonderful terminology. In addition to austringer, consider crines, the feathers between a bird’s eyes and beak. A mute is the act of goshawk defecation or its product, as in, I have goshawk mutes on my shirt. A goshawk who bates is making downward dives in unhappiness, anger, or fear. Falconers fly goshawks on a long lead called a creance. Hawks don’t wipe their beaks. They feak. To be in yarak is to be in the mood for a little killing.
Mabel proves herself none of the scary adjectives English falconers have ascribed to goshawks. Instead she is intelligent, playful, and responsive. Anthropomorphic tendencies aside, when Macdonald is jolted awake in an earthquake (in England!), she runs to check on Mabel, who is unfazed. The bird’s calm soothes the panicked Macdonald.
The moment comes when all falconers must allow their birds to fly free, hoping they return to the outstretched fist proferring food. Macdonald allows that this sensation, of giving your utmost to enormous risk, is a rush akin to drug use or gambling. The moment Mabel flies free and returns is an exhilarating one.
Yet for all the happiness of training this most sensitive of goshawks, Macdonald remains in a deep state of grief. In a stirring passage, she describes her father’s childhood fascination with aircraft. While growing up in wartime England, Alisdair Macdonald stood outside for hours, logging the warplanes flying over his head. He learned which planes meant to defend him, which to kill. It’s not surprising the plane-watching child grew up to become a photojournalist, a job involving vigilant waiting to get the best shot. Thinking about her father, Macdonald realizes they are both “watchers”.
Alisdair Macdonald’s memorial is packed with mourners. Several take Macdonald aside to share stories affirming the man’s kindness. The event is a catalyst, the moment when grief’s madness begins to lift. Macdonald writes that all good falconers recognize that their feral selves must peaceably coexist with their domestic personas. She realizes that for all the joys of training Mabel, there is a certain coldness inherent in the avian-human relationship. “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”
Macdonald begins a course of SSRI medication, spending Christmas in the United States with her mother and a dear friend, recovering herself, re-entering the world where hawks fly while we on the ground turn our faces skyward.