H is for Hawk

I almost became a falconer once. The ad promised you hands-on training for catching raptors, and you would be working with ones needing care, so it seemed like the perfect volunteer gig.  However, our time in California was drawing to a close, so I never got to experience the drama and force of a raptor landing on my gloved hand. But, wow, did I love this book.

This memoir artfully intertwines three stories: Helen’s experience training her first goshawk, her grieving for her father, and author T. H. White’s mixed results raising falcons and hawks. All these stories are told powerfully, and the subject is so interesting that I found the book riveting.  

Training the small fierce goshawk Mable (the author chose the name as something opposite of what you’d expect) for a few hours every day away took Helen from her disabling grief over her father’s sudden death on the street taking pictures for his job. At one point, Macdonald describes his last photograph--at street level, a line of blurs and a patch of sky as her father fell and died from a heart attack.

Yes, there are dead animals and blood, often Macdonald’s own. Yet I found only one “ugh” moment when Mable came down and sank a talon between the author’s eyes. Blood poured out. So much that she had to quickly wipe her face on the grass so as not to entice the hawk’s death instinct upon seeing blood. But does Helen call it a day and head home then? No, she is made of much sterner stuff and just plugs a round of plaster upon her face and continues sending the hawk into the sky and calling Mable back to her hand.

What Macdonald likes best about raising hawks is that the process takes her “to a place that is not human at all.” The only things she saw out in the fields “were hawkish things, and the lines that drew me across the landscape were the lines that drew the hawk: hunger, desire, fascination, the need to fly and kill.”

Her book is full of both wisdom and beauty. She calls the archaeology of grief not ordered. She compares it to a spade “turning up things you have forgotten.”

The great American environmentalist Aldo Leopold described falconry as “a balancing act between wild and tame—not just in the hawk, but inside the heart and mind of the falconer.” In Macdonald’s case this proves spot on.

During the early stages of training, Helen does not leave the house for weeks. She stays inside with her bits of ripped meat teaching the goshawk to trust her and finally accept her food. When visitors arrive unexpectedly, Macdonald is both appalled and nearly incapable of speech. She spends so much time thinking like a hawk, that she finds it hard to recognize her own humanity. “Thirty ounces of death in a feathered pocket,” Helen describes her hawk.

This book skirts the divide between wildness and domesticity. It will captivate you. When you see the flicker of a pair of huge wings overhead, you will give a start of recognition to a creature that rules the skies.