A Book Our For Our Collective Sympathies

Haunted by her father’s death, Helen Macdonald kept company with a bird of prey. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTINA MCLEISH / COURTESY GROVE ATLANTIC

Haunted by her father’s death, Helen Macdonald kept company with a bird of prey. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTINA MCLEISH / COURTESY GROVE ATLANTIC

Birds represent something important in our work, and it is not always clear exactly how and why, so every day we try to elaborate it for ourselves as much as for anyone.

If you did not take the moment to watch the video posted yesterday, or read the post from our boys in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, no matter. Today those are complemented by a book review, of all things, that captures the essence of why we find birds so compelling, and helps us understand why their world has come to play such a vital role in this blog:

…Among those who know their birds of prey, the reputation of the goshawk is half Hamlet, half Lady Macbeth: mad, murderous, unpredictable, the kind of creature whose partners and intimates should brace themselves for trouble. “Spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths,”

Macdonald calls them. “Not for me, I’d thought, many times.” But then came death, that other unpredictable mad murderer, and Macdonald got a hawk, named her Mabel, and set about trying to tame her.

Macdonald’s book about that experience, “H Is for Hawk” (Grove), was first published last summer in Great Britain, where it won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction and the Costa Book of the Year prize, awarded to the best new book in any genre. Had there been an award for the best new book that defies every genre, I imagine it would have won that, too. Like the griffin that the Wart might have met in his forest, “H Is for Hawk” is an improbable and hybrid creature. It is one part grief memoir, one part guide to raptors, and one part biography of T. H. White, who chronicled his maiden effort at falconry in “The Goshawk,” written just before he began work on “The Once and Future King.” I am describing Macdonald’s book by its parts for the same reason we describe a griffin by its parts—because how else would we do so? But it is coherent, complete, and riveting, perhaps the finest nonfiction I read in the past year.

To this wondrously atypical book, Macdonald brings an equally atypical background. She is a former falcon-breeder for royalty of the United Arab Emirates, a current historian of science at Cambridge, a naturalist, an illustrator, and the author of three collections of poetry and one previous work of nonfiction, “Falcon,” a natural and cultural history. She is also what you might call a former raptor prodigy. Her father, in addition to being a photographer, was an amateur plane-spotter, and he taught his young daughter sky-watching, bird-watching, and patience. By the age of six, she had begun teaching herself about birds of prey. Her prepubescent leisure reading included, along with “The Goshawk,” Gilbert Blaine’s “Falconry,” Frank Illingworth’s “Falcons and Falconry,” and James Harting’s “Hints on Hawks.” By nine or ten, Macdonald had become, in her words, “the most appalling falconry bore.”

Listen to her now, two pages in:

Maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.

So much for the falconry bore. Intellectually, Macdonald is unhurried—she pauses to point out whatever is interesting—but, stylistically, she is like this passage, all pounce. Over and over, her writing takes you by surprise: no sooner have you registered the kitchen than, whoa, there’s the snow leopard, its huge Himalayan paws leaving prints on the tile and half a domestic shorthair hanging from its mouth. I will never again not have pictured that, and, with apologies to my cat, I am glad. Like “The Goshawk,” only with considerably more self-awareness, “H Is for Hawk” is about what happens when you blur the line between wild and domestic: about what it is like to share your home with a bloody great murdering creature, why anyone would choose to do so, and what rewards and hazards attend that decision.

Books about nature, like the category “animal,” sometimes suffer from a sin of omission: in both cases, people belong inside them but are often left out. Books about grief run the opposite risk; too much of the person can be left in, too much of the world omitted. Macdonald, who is writing both kinds of book at once, makes neither mistake. She is intimate and moving on the anguish that carried her into the company of hawks, but the world of her book is like the world we really live in, crowded with humans and human ideas, and she turns on it all the triple perspicacity of a poet, a naturalist, and a historian. She dissects the cultural symbolism attached to hawks from Victorian England to the Third Reich; she catalogues the classic animal stories by gay authors, who could not write openly of their human relationships; she observes that when a species is endangered it suffers not only numeric but also semantic decline. “The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have,” she observes. “Eventually rarity is all they are made of.”

Goshawks are rare in England now—certainly, they are a rare companion for a young urban woman—but, Macdonald notes, there was a time when you could walk down the street in Cambridge and see as many birds on the fist as today you see dogs on a leash. That world had an entire culture and language, and Macdonald provides an introduction to it. A person who trains falcons is called a falconer, but a person who trains hawks is called an austringer. Young hawks are eyasses, as crossword-puzzle devotees know; adolescents are passagers; those caught as adults are haggards. A happy hawk signals its contentment by “rousing,” and Macdonald and White each provide a wonderful description…

Read the whole review here.

4 thoughts on “A Book Our For Our Collective Sympathies

  1. Pingback: H Is For Hawk, Reviewed | Raxa Collective

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