Blood in the Sky

Christina McLeish
Helen Macdonald with her goshawk, Mabel, near Cambridge, England, 2007

After her father died in 2007, Helen Macdonald, a historian and naturalist at Cambridge University, began to dream about a goshawk she had encountered several years before. A concerned citizen had found the hawk unconscious—evidently the hawk had flown into a fence and knocked herself out—and had brought her, in a box, to a bird-of-prey center where Macdonald was then working. Macdonald and her coworkers dimmed the lights. They opened the container:

A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud.

The prose here is as striking as the bird must have been. Thanks to the word “scuffle,” the reader can hear the rustle of feathers and claws against cardboard. The metaphoric “meringue” nicely captures the fluffy but pointedly erect display of plumage. And the grammar is a conversational, even cavalier mix of sentence fragment (“Beautiful like a granite cliff”) and stately, verb-before-subject declaration (“out into the gloom…came a…goshawk”).

When Macdonald and her peers inspected the bird’s bones, feathers, and talons, they discovered that she was fine—better than fine—and took her outside and released her. “She opened her wings and in a second was gone,” Macdonald writes. “She disappeared over a hedge slant-wise into nothing. It was as if she’d found a rent in the damp Gloucestershire air and slipped through it.”

A vanishing, or a resurrection? This was the moment that Macdonald began to revisit in dreams. Perhaps it served as what Freud called a “nodal point,” linking up her ideas and feelings as she set about the conscious and unconscious work of mourning her father. (Freud thought of mourning as work because he noticed that in a great grief, a mourner only surrenders her attachment to the departed reluctantly and arduously—“bit by bit, under great expense of time and cathectic energy”—through a revisiting and reinterpretation of “each single one of the memories and hopes” that had bound her to the dead.) As if hoping to bring the dream to life, she decided to acquire and train a goshawk. She would come to suspect that the decision was foolhardy because the solitary nature of the project may have made her recovery from grief slower. Her loss is the reader’s gain, however. Her book H Is for Hawk is the rich result of her difficult experiment.

How is training a goshawk like mourning a father? Macdonald herself wonders: “What am I going to do with the hawk. Kill things. Make death.” She observes that the words bereavement and raptor both derive from old words for robbing…

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