Drawing Blood in Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk


11 Feb. 2018



Her huge, yellow eye quickly scanned and re-scanned the crowd, assessing danger and potential prey in a continual restless rove. One slight twitch and that eye locked on mine. I had just emerged from Helen Macdonald’s evocative, emotionally powerful book H Is For Hawk and the unexpectedness of crossing paths with a red-tailed hawk at an outdoor festival froze me in place. My mind was still echoing with passages of flight as I drank the hawk in - her curved beak, her wings folded in promise of quick eruption, her cruel, highly effective talons. She was beautiful. And deadly. And I was in thrall. Such is the power of Macdonald’s unique blend of nature-writing and memoir. She inducts you into the arcane world of hawking and falconry. You learn to know and care about jesses, mews, and hoods. But she also is blunt about the single-minded carnage such birds are designed to wreak. Macdonald uses that unemotional, violent death to deal with another.

Helen Macdonald creates a book unlike any one I had read before. Weaving natural history, a scholar’s love of the arcane, and a raw dissection of grief, Macdonald’s talent for haunting prose sweeps these three seemingly disparate themes into a revelatory piece of non-fiction. She shares a cataclysmic time in her life. Her father’s unexpected death changes the warp and weft of her world. It is too much for her to look at straight-on. So she side-steps. Captivated by birds of prey since childhood, she throws herself without much preparation into rearing, training, and ministering to one of the most savage predators known, the goshawk. So great is her need for distraction that she abandons her fledgling career as a Cambridge Research Fellow, sacrificing any pursuit or relationship that does not align with her mission. In her darkest moments, she becomes almost as feral as her hawk. All to avoid the outline of loss in her periphery. 

Mabel is Macdonald’s enormous goshawk, a comfortable maiden-aunt name that belies her power. As Macdonald falls under her spell, weaving descriptions of majesty and wildness around the bird, we too join her as devotees at the alter. “She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.” But if her main purpose was to avoid death, Macdonald fails as she soon finds herself its intimate partner. “Every tiny part of her was boiling with life…The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her…My flight from death was on her barred and beating wings. But I had forgotten that the puzzle that was death was caught up in the hawk, and I was caught up in it too.”

Out of doors, in the hawk’s element, Macdonald’s depictions of Nature are cathartic and stimulating and alive. There is breath-catching beauty in descriptions of dawn trudges, quiet woodland overgrown with thick brush, the solitude that’s not silent but alive with the distinct chatter and hum of living things. But the idyllic can turn on its edge and as the weather shifts, Macdonald’s sojourns become bone-chilling and rough. The pain and discomfort, the sheer wildness of Nature penetrates to the bone - lessons Macdonald uses to accept the cycle of mortality and heal.

Another layer to this memoir is the ghost of T.H. White, author of the iconic Camelot tale, The Once and Future King. In hopes of a mentor, Macdonald turns to White’s notebooks documenting his own attempts to train a goshawk. Instead she quickly recognizes a fellow broken heart attempting to salve wounds with a wild beast. Both White and Macdonald immerse themselves to such a degree that their ordeals take on the quality of heraldic knights. Sleepless days and nights tied to their hooded hawks, walking with forearm aloft, bearing their not-inconsiderable weight, coaxing trust with skinned rabbits and raw offal, their own faces and arms the confused, frustrated animal’s whipping post. Macdonald writes about White’s frustrations as a school master, his struggle with creating a literary identity while still trying to define his personal one, and his lifelong partnership with fear. Macdonald’s obsession with outrunning grief spurred her in much the same way.

Helen Macdonald’s unique journey is visceral, memorable art. She made it. With wits and all ten fingers intact. And the result is a beautiful, honest, and ultimately cathartic addition to the literary pantheon. H Is For Hawk uniquely combines the human relationship with Nature, mortality, and scholarship, achieving alchemy in the process.

*Post Script* 


This past November, PBS aired a series “H is for Hawk: A New Chapter” wherein a more at-peace Macdonald conducts a masterclass in how one trains a goshawk, using the lessons learned with Mabel. Her clear eyes and peaceful smile indicate a larger lesson hard-won, the peace richly deserved.


Drawing Blood in Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk
Drawing Blood in Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk

Ghillian Porter-Smith writes about H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s unique blend of nature-writing and memoir. She inducts you into the arcane world of hawking and falconry. You learn to know and care about jesses, mews, and hoods. But she also is blunt about the single-minded carnage such birds are designed to wreak. Macdonald uses that unemotional, violent death to deal with another. 

© Ghillian Porter-Smith / OgFOMK ArTS -- 2018 All Rights Reserved. - Books on Review - "Drawing Blood in Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk"

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