Raptor enrapture: the story of a life saved by falconry

The sudden death of a woman’s father propels her into buying and training a goshawk – but then she starts to worry about her own identity. 

Let us prey: a 1955 image of a hawk catching a rabbit in the snow. Photo: Getty
Let us prey: a 1955 image of a hawk catching a rabbit in the snow. Photo: Getty

H Is for Hawk 
Helen Macdonald
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £14.99

The natural world seems to have an endless capacity to soak up our grief. We project on it our sins. Birds in particular are invested with this displacement and have acted in that role through much of modern nature writing. Their airy, eldritch shapes – part omen, part dinosaur – speak to the greater disconnection we feel from the wilderness.

Look to J A Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), for instance, an account of the author’s communion with the falcons of an unnamed part of the Essex countryside. In it, Baker, apparently suffering from a terminal condition, compulsively observes and records these birds – themselves threatened by the introduction of the pesticide DDT, which would bring them to near extinction. He writes evocatively of a “pouring-away world”, where the raptor negotiates the landscape “by a succession of remembered symmetries”. Baker places himself within that landscape, earthbound, but we feel his spirit soaring above it with the birds.

In her new book, Helen Macdonald, a Cambridge academic living not far from Baker’s fiefdom, binds herself so closely to a member of the hawk family that she fears she is no longer fit for human society. In her case, the motivation for this highly emotional lurch into an avian world is made devastatingly clear. It is the sudden death, from a heart attack, of her father in late middle age.

His loss becomes the measure of this book, the depth charge of its pain. It leads Macdonald to recall her childhood in fitful, flash-lit scenes that reveal to the reader the profound, lifelong connection she has had with birds of prey and the glamorous link with the historical past that they represent. “You take a hawk on to your fist. You imagine the falconer of the past doing the same. It is hard not to feel it is the same hawk . . . History collapses when you hold a hawk.”

Struggling with grief, she decides to train a goshawk – a notoriously difficult raptor to master – and orders a bird from a man in Northern Ireland. She drives to a Scottish quay to meet him. Her description of the bird as it emerges from a cardboard box is breathlessly in the moment: “The man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and . . . everything is brilliance and fury . . . My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”

It is the beginning of an intimate process in which Macdonald must bind the bird – which she names, with purposeful bathos, Mabel – to herself emotionally, just as the leather tresses attach it physically. She brings it back to her college apartment, where it perches in the living room, its wide eyes reacting to her in horror.

Gradually, she makes her presence essential to the bird by being its provider of food. Liaising with other falconers, Macdonald submerges herself – and her pain – in this other life. Her academic career is put on hold. She is forced to leave her accommodation. She can no longer bear to converse or behave in the ordinary world. She stands in a Cambridge park, training her hawk (it might as well be a dragon), the cynosure of passers-by whom she tries to ignore, politely. She is, she suspects, going mad.

Central to this story is another book and its even more pathological narrative: T H White’s The Goshawk, which was written in 1936 but not published until 1951. White had, as a young writer, left his position as a teacher at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire to live in the woods in a cottage. There, he began to train his own goshawk – badly, in Macdonald’s opinion. Even as a girl, already precociously learned on the subject, she complains to her mother that White is being stupid, ignoring all the rules.

Yet in White’s evident discomfort with himself and his sexuality, Macdonald sees a mirror of her discontent. She reads The Goshawk as “a work of suppressed homosexual desire – not for flesh, but for blood, for kinship”. Her own writing about her bird becomes an expression of escape, by force of its subject’s ferocity: “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away.”

Her childhood fascination with passive observation has been ramped up into a visceral, talons-on-leather connection. Initially she agrees with the falconer and scientist Tom Cade that falconry is “high-intensity birdwatching”, but then she realises it is much more like a drug: “I had found my addiction . . . as ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin.”

Throughout the book, Macdonald’s prose lurches into the extreme. It’s as if she is careering headlong, like her hawk, in pursuit of some unnameable prey. Falconry is not a hobby; it is therapy. The reiteration of her grief becomes both unbearably sad and, sometimes, too personal for the reader who looks on, aghast, at the state Macdonald finds herself in. Yet the language, which strains for effect on occasion, is redeemed by the lustrous descriptions of Mabel – especially her eyes, flashing orange and predatory, or half-open in dozy satisfaction. Macdonald is aware that she is living too much through her hawk. She fears that she has become the bird’s accomplice in slaughter, kneeling to snap a rabbit’s neck as an accessory to the kill, stuffing illicitly hunted pheasants into the pockets of her hawking waistcoat.

By the book’s end, she has learned “the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because they have nothing to do with us at all.” It is a mark of Macdonald’s achievement that so exultant a book can resolve itself in a sense of failure, yet leave the reader as uplifted as a raptor riding on a thermal. 

Philip Hoare’s books include “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99)