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 or seizing, and the observation seems to be a roundabout, etymological way of saying that both mourner and killer have firsthand knowledge of death’s violence. Indeed, Macdonald revels somewhat in her unsqueamishness, particularly when it comes to her hawk’s food, such as the “sad, fluffy corpses” of day-old chicks that she keeps in her freezer or the “dead white rabbit…defrosting like a soft toy in an evidence bag” on her kitchen counter. At one point her face and scalp were slashed by her hawk, overexcited while on a hunt, and she was covered in her own blood. “Christ,” she thinks to herself, with what almost seems to be pride, “this is a bit Edgar Allan Poe.”

This is not to say that Macdonald is nonchalant about death or suffering. “Kneeling next to the hawk and her prey,” she writes, “I felt a responsibility so huge that it battered inside my own chest, ballooning out into a space the size of a cathedral.” A hawk’s prey, she notes, lives a life of liberty and pleasure until the moment it’s caught, unlike the animals that humans raise in factory farms.

“Were the rabbits you?” a friend asked Macdonald. A reader may also want to ask, Was the hawk? And which animal, if any, represented her father? Macdonald never quite sorts out her analogies, and that makes sense. Mourning is an untidy process, and in the course of it, as the love and hate that are ordinarily fused in one’s understanding of oneself and others become disarticulated, a survivor may feel more like a killer or like the dead than like the person she previously thought she was. The art of Macdonald’s book is in the way that she weaves together various kinds of falling apart—the way she loops one unraveling thread of meaning into another.

I’ll limit myself to describing the individual threads in her work. The first is Macdonald’s loss of her father, whom she identifies as a photojournalist and whom a quick Google search reveals to have been Alisdair Macdonald, who worked for decades for the Daily Mirror. She doesn’t give her father’s name, perhaps because her claim is not on the accomplishments of his public self but on the gentlenesses of his private one—on his confession to her, for example, that he kept calm during dangerous assignments by looking at the world through his viewfinder, as if the only thing worth worrying about was the image he was composing. From childhood he was an avid plane-spotter, sometimes logging planes for as long as twelve hours at a time, and Macdonald wonders if her birdwatching is an echo of those days. She remembers fondly a photo that he took of a street-cleaner feeding a crumb to a sparrow.


The second thread is Macdonald’s lifelong fascination with birds of prey. “When I was six,” she recalls, “I tried to sleep every night with my arms folded behind my back like wings.” As a child she devoured books on falconry, and at school, when asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer, she quietly, secretly addressed “Dear Horus,” the falcon-headed god of ancient Egypt, instead of “Our Father.” She was twelve when her first sight of a kill by a trained goshawk left her with “emotions I hadn’t names for.” On the same hunt, she saw three goshawks lose interest in their masters, and she was impressed with the sad patience of the men who dropped out of the hunting party to wait under trees that their hawks had flown into. Goshawks, it turns out, are easy to lose.

It’s an attribute likely to draw the attention of a mourner. In the 1930s, however, it drew the attention of the British writer T.H. White for reasons that had little to do with mourning. White, whose life story makes up the third strand in Macdonald’s book, was then at a crossroads. He had recently quit schoolteaching, having discovered that, as he put it, “there is something horrible about boys in the mass: like haddocks,” and he was undergoing psychoanalysis in hopes of curing his homosexuality and sadism. He had not yet begun writing The Once and Future King, the retelling of the Arthurian legends for which he is best known today.

After reading about a goshawk who “reverted in a week to a feral state,” he decided that he needed such an animal in his life because he wanted to go feral himself. This wasn’t terribly logical.

Why would taming a goshawk make the tamer wild? Nor was this the only flaw in his thinking. A hawk, as Macdonald explains, is not a social animal and is incapable of understanding punishment. The sadist in White seems to have taken this as a challenge, and in a three-century-old book on falconry, he discovered a form of negative reinforcement that a hawk would accept: sleep deprivation. White called it a “secret cruelty”—secret because the bird didn’t perceive it as cruelty—and he subjected his goshawk to it for days on end. He also subjected himself to it, working alone even though, as Macdonald notes, his seventeenth-century guru was almost certainly spelled by a team of helpers. Macdonald thinks his misunderstanding was willful—that he wanted his encounter with the bird to be a kind of chivalric contest. “It has never been easy to learn life from books” was White’s rueful admission in The Goshawk (1951), his funny, poignant, and excruciating account of the ordeal.

At age eight, when Macdonald first read White’s Goshawk, she was fascinated and disapproving: “This was a book about falconry by a man who seemed to know nothing about it.” (White himself confessed that it was “the kind of book which would madden every accomplished falconer.”) When she reread it as an adult, four months after her father’s death, she again felt somewhat embarrassed by and annoyed at White’s blundering, but she was also able to admire the courage and honesty intertwined with it. What’s more, she realized that she had partly borrowed her motives for adopting a goshawk from White; she had come to share what she described as “his desire to escape to the wild.”

Her attempted escape, through her relationship with a goshawk, constitutes the fourth storyline in her book. Macdonald gives her bird the very human name of Mabel, on account of the name’s connotations of “antimacassars and afternoon teas,” but she does so rather perversely, because it’s the strangeness of the hawk that she most admires. “She is a conjuring trick,” Macdonald writes, of her first sight of the animal. “A reptile. A fallen angel.” Macdonald is so unwilling to risk boring her reader that from time to time one feels that the color saturation dial on her prose is turned up a little too high (of the eating of a messy hamburger, for example, she writes that “ketchup dripped down my arm like a wound”). Given the opportunity to observe Mabel up close, however, Macdonald proves herself capable not only of bold metaphors but also of quiet impressions that can be almost painfully precise:


The feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards its tip with a leaf-bladed spearhead, so from her throat to her feet she is patterned with a shower of falling raindrops…. She looks new. Looks as if the world cannot touch her.

As Macdonald journeys into the underworld, or rather, otherworld, of the nonhuman, White serves as her Virgil, and her steps follow in his footprints. “The basket pulsed like a big heart in fever,” White wrote of the arrival of his goshawk. Macdonald describes the arrival of hers, in a box, with an image just as striking: “A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within.” When White began to train his bird, he boasted that as an unemployed person he was himself as “free as a hawk,” and Macdonald similarly brags of cutting herself off from society when she starts Mabel’s training: “I’d instructed my friends to leave me alone,” she writes. “I’d filled the freezer with hawk food and unplugged the phone.” A few weeks into his training, White disconcerted a postman who stopped for a chat by unconsciously mewing at him during their conversation. At a comparable moment, Macdonald found speaking to a friend effortful, and when she did speak, she sensed that “the voice is not entirely mine.”


Christina McLeish

Macdonald’s goshawk, Mabel

Much of the charm of Macdonald’s book, like White’s, is that the affable author that the reader meets in its pages contrasts so sharply with the antisocial author that the pages describe. So fierce did Macdonald’s desire to shun people become that at one point, in her training log, she wrote of her fellow humans that she wished “they would FUCK OFF AND LEAVE ME ALONE.” She preferred to be a hawk: “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”

One can see the appeal. In their superior strength, agility, and focus, animals must be the original supermen. Macdonald reports that the eyes of birds have four color receptors where human eyes have only three, and that hawks can see polarized light and thermals, and can sense magnetic fields. And who wouldn’t like to be able to fly? As any contemporary 3-D superhero movie will confirm, we humans, when we dream of flying, don’t imagine doing it the way sparrows do. We imagine flying like hawks, as in this description, in J.A. Baker’s lush and disquieting 1967 book The Peregrine, of a falcon’s stoop:

She swept down and round in a spiral, wings half bent back, glancing down through the air, smoothly and without haste, at a forty-five degree angle. In this first long curving fall she slowly revolved her body on its axis, and just as the full turn was completed, she tilted over in a perfect arc and poured into the vertical descent. There was a slight check, as though some tenuous barrier of unruly air had been forced through; then she dropped smoothly down. Her wings were now flung up and back and bending inwards, quivering like fins in the gale that rushed along her tapering sides. They were like the flights of an arrow, rippling and pluming above the rigid shaft. She hurled to earth; dashed herself down; disappeared.

A minute later she rose unharmed….

The end of a goshawk’s training is the release of her, for hunting. The question is whether she will come back. Up until she is loosed, the bond between human and bird is a literal one, with its own special vocabulary. The leather straps that attach to a hawk’s anklets, for example, are known as jesses, and the long training leash that attaches to the jesses is known as a creance. The literal bonds come to have figurative meanings. “One never tied a knot without the anxiety of a turnkey and a faint dubiety at heart,” White recalled. When Macdonald came across a sketch that she drew at age six of a kestrel on a glove, she noticed that her younger self had drawn the bird and the glove vaguely but had taken great care in detailing the legs, toes, jesses, and leash. Her focus went naturally to the parts that connected hawk and human.

In describing what might attach an unleashed hawk, Macdonald names “lines of habit, of hunger, of partnership, of familiarity.” She adds to her list “something the old falconers would call love,” and if she herself hesitates to call it love outright, perhaps it’s because she’s aware how different the attachment is from human love, or from the common ideal of it, at any rate. Humans associate love with generosity, which hawks don’t respond well to. Generosity was White’s big mistake. Afraid that his goshawk was malnourished, White fed him too much. He didn’t know that modern falconers weigh their birds frequently in order to feed them judiciously. “A fat, stuffed goshawk doesn’t want anything other than to be left alone, to disappear into that half-world of no-humans, replete and contented,” Macdonald explains. “I had thought…that the way to the heart lay through the belly,” White wrote, after it was too late. In fact, “the way to government lay through the deprivation of the belly.”

Despite knowing better—despite having known better since childhood—Macdonald made the same mistake with Mabel. Repeatedly she let Mabel go when Mabel wasn’t yet hungry enough, and the hawk, freed, ignored her. Macdonald even misinterpreted her error the same way White did, imagining that Mabel was having a complex emotional response when in fact she was only manifesting the indifference of satiety.

Knowing better, it seems, was of limited use. Maybe when a human feeds a small creature reliably and pays careful, sustained attention to it, such mistakes are inevitable. “After a course of falconry,” White suggested, “any man would make a good mother.” To a partridge, White’s goshawk was an assassin, and usually looked the part, but White had a chance to see the assassin taking his first bath, and turning “funny and silly” in his enjoyment of it: “The absurd princeling blew out all his feathers, lifted his tail in the air, and, like an old lady sitting down in a tram or lifting her bustle to get at a purse among the petticoats, sat down suddenly, shiftily, luxuriously, in the puddle.” Macdonald made a similar discovery one day when she crumpled up a piece of paper into a ball. Mabel, it transpired, liked to play catch. “No one had ever told me goshawks played,” she writes. “It was not in the books.”

Playing with Mabel seems to have helped Macdonald with something. It seems to have been important to her, in her mourning, to come to some kind of peace with brutality. When Mabel killed her first pheasant and began to pluck and eat it, Macdonald began to weep. “She is a child,” she writes, describing what she felt in that moment. “A baby hawk that’s just worked out who she is. What she’s for.” While helping Mabel pull feathers off her kill, Macdonald recalled the patience that her father had shown her when she was a little girl. It’s a complex scene—a gory Madonna and Child, where the Madonna is making an identification with her own father, and seeing her father as having been tolerant of her own rapacity as a child.

Toward the end of the book, however, Macdonald insists that the inhumanity of goshawks is a thing apart, not to be confused with the meanings that humans assign to them. At first I understood this to be a disavowal, and maybe even a piece of sentimentality, and was a little impatient with it. But on second thought, it seems to me that Macdonald is distinguishing playing from reality in order to protect her right to play even with cruelty and death. In training a goshawk, Macdonald didn’t become her father. Nor did she become a hawk. She kept her own human self, and perhaps deepened it.

Soon after helping Mabel pluck her first kill, Macdonald assumed the responsibility of making sure that any rabbits that Mabel caught were dead before she progressed too far into the eating of them. “I had to check the rabbit was dead by very gently touching its eye,” she writes. What’s lovely about Macdonald’s book is the clarity with which she sees both the inner and outer worlds that she lives in.