H Is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Sometimes our most irrational decisions are also our most defining moments. They are the moments when we know we’re acting a bit mad, as they say on Downton, yet we feel better, freer, and wilder than at any other time. Perhaps we’ve quit our job to write a novel. Perhaps we’ve quit our life to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Or perhaps we’ve brought home a baby goshawk.
That last one is what Helen Macdonald did after the unexpected loss of her father. And while I don’t know Helen Macdonald, after reading her unique and idiosyncratic memoir about this attempt to harness her grief, it’s safe to say that it’s a book only she could have written. With beautiful, poetic language (that works surprisingly well when describing the sometimes gory details of training a hawk), Macdonald narrates her surface story while weaving in meditations on grief and nature and our relationship to animals and the meaning of solitude. She also gives us just enough on the history of falconry to understand its place in the British class system and its place in her life. And then there’s her metaphysical kinship with the late T.H. White (author of the Once and Future King series and falconer).
Now I should back up and explain that Macdonald is a trained falconer and naturalist (in addition to being a writer and historian), so her decision to adopt a hawk wasn’t quite as far off the rails as it might sound. Although for yours truly, a self-proclaimed indoorsy type, the concept was still a little hard to get my head around when I picked up her book.
It reminded me of when we first adopted Henry The Wonderdog a few years back: he’s no bird of prey, but he is still undoubtedly a member of the animal kingdom. And while he immediately won us over with his loving personality and striking resemblance to a Gund stuffed animal, there was a part of me that couldn’t help feeling a little, well, grossed out, frankly, at the thought of having “an animal in my house.” Six years later there are still times when I feel like I know where the wild things are – on my sofa – and my ambivalence surfaces.
I suppose this is to say that the next time I start to lose my mind (the clock is ticking), I probably won’t be donning a falconer’s glove and waistcoat, but H Is for Hawk did help me remember why I keep this crazy terrier/hound mix around. (He’s snoozing on my freshly vacuumed sofa as I write this.) Anyone who’s had a pet (or been to the zoo or the petting farm) will bashfully admit that we tend to project our motivations and needs onto animals. But Macdonald reminded me that it’s reciprocal; we also long for the purity of what animals can give and receive.