Thank goodness that Helen McDonald, author of H Is for Hawk, did not clip her own wings.
I say that because Helen McDonald is a very, very unusual person. Her life path has been challenging due to her personality and her passion for nature, and I expect she is challenging in relationships. Nevertheless, her knowledge, her sensitivities, and her skill as a writer bring the reader an experience and insights to be treasured.
Her love of birds seems to have hatched at birth in England. At six, she was trying to sleep like a bird, arms folded behind her like wings. She collected a huge library of bird books, and she and her beloved father, a photographer, explored nature together. By age 12, she had a kestrel in her bedroom. Eventually she became a skillful falconer.
As brilliant as she is unusual, McDonald also became a poet, writer, historian, naturalist, and research scholar at Cambridge. All of her gifts came together when her father died suddenly. To survive a grief that took her close to madness, she decided to train a goshawk. She emerged from that experience with a book that is being praised here in the United States and in England as a pending classic.
McDonald is so perceptive and sensitive, so emotionally strung out through much of the book, that it was kind of a taxing read in some respects. Published in England, it uses British punctuation and spelling, which seems to take the American reader on a journey to a foreign country and the past both. McDonald has a tremendous vocabulary and seems to have perfect recall of every scene in nature. She recreates it with the eye of an artist, the knowledge of a naturalist, and the words of a poet. The work sometimes flows as wildly as do her emotions but always with the skill and attention to detail that she used in training the hawk.
Why this particular bird, as opposed to a falcon? The choice was inspired in part by her reading at age eight of T.H. White’s account of his own bungled effort in falconry titled The Goshawk. References to this memoir pace McDonald’s account. But also, after her father dies, the author begins to dream about goshawks, and this serves as a form of guidance.
A swift and brutal killer, the goshawk is exceptionally difficult to train. McDonald repeatedly uses the adjective “reptilian” in describing the bird she names Mabel. This comes from a word meaning “lovable” or “dear” in Latin, and reflects her need for a heart connection with the bird. Nevertheless, at one point she describes the sense of holding on her fist “the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle.”
Odd as it may seem, Mabel is exactly what McDonald needs to survive her grief. Bred in an aviary near Belfast, she is picked up at the Scottish quay by McDonald and a friend. Back at her home where the refrigerator is stocked with hawk food and a plastic cloth lies under a perch to catch Mabel’s “mutes,” the falconer’s term for bird droppings, the author and her hawk settle into weeks of isolation together.
With the hawk initially paralyzed by fear, McDonald’s challenge is to be present but invisible, to sit hour after hour with the hawk simply observing, the self dissolving into the role of watcher. Eventually, the falconer inhabits the mind of the hawk, sees what it sees, senses what it does. This is exactly what McDonald needs to escape her grief.
She describes the intensity of that time. “Imagine: you’re in a darkened room. You are sitting with a hawk on your fist. She is as immobile, as tense and sprung as a catapult at full stretch. Underneath her huge, thorny feet is a chunk of raw steak. You’re trying to get her to look at the steak, not at you, because you know–though you haven’t looked–that her eyes are fixed in horror at your profile. All you can hear is the wet click, click, click of her blinking.”
Trust and acceptance are eventually established, and the time comes to take Mabel out in the natural world to hunt. In the beginning, and occasionally thereafter, there is a moment when McDonald loses sight of Mabel and panics, running through brambles and thorns, muddy, scratched, bleeding, and terrified that Mabel will not return. But she does.
And so does McDonald’s sanity–or the ability to survive loss in a sane way–through the passage of time with Mabel, through expert help, through the writing of her book, and today no doubt through understanding how important her shared experience is to others. The book is dedicated to McDonald’s family, which is appropriate. However, it is through Mabel that every reader will put it down with a deeper regard for all of her wild kind.