H is for Hawk is a raw account of Helen Macdonald’s wrestling with bereavement following the sudden death of her father. Helen seeks solace through the training of a goshawk in what appears at first to be a retreat from the human world into the world of nature. Her restoration – mental, physical and spiritual – is brought about through her gradual realization that nature and humankind are separate, each with their own gifts. One gift that Helen finds in the natural world is the gift of healing as she finds the pain of loss becoming bearable. Interspersed throughout Helen’s writing are allusions to TH White’s ‘Goshawk’ by T H White, a training manual for falconers.
I’ve moved back to the city, to a little rented house in a street near the river with a small sunny garden that ends in a tangle of briars. Cats stalk the pavement outside, there are pigeons all over the roof, and it is good to be back in a house I can call my own for a while. Today I am unpacking boxes and stacking books on shelves. Three boxes down, five to go. I open the next box. Inside, on top of the other books, is The Goshawk.
Oh, I think as I pick it up. It is strange to see it again, because I’ve not thought about White for a while. As I grew happier his presence receded, his world more and more distant from mine. I look at the scuffed spine, open it, and flip to the very end. I want to read the very last page, where White lists all the things Gos was: a Prussian officer, Attila, an Egyptian hieroglyph, a winged Assyrian bull, ‘one of the lunatic dukes or cardinals in the Elizabethan plays of Webster’. A litany of human things in stone and armour, in marks on pages and dints in sun-baked clay. I peer out of the dusty window to Mabel in the garden. She has bathed and preened and now she’s leaning backwards to the oil-gland above her tail, nibbling it gently, then pulling each tail feather through her beak to make it waterproof. I know she is content: the half closed, happy eye, the rattling of her feathers: these are signs of raw good humour. I cannot know what she is thinking, but she is very alive.
I think of White’s list of things and what a strange, sad ending it was. I swear to myself, standing there with the book open in my hand, that I will not ever reduce my hawk to a hieroglyph, an historical figure or a misremembered villain. Of course I won’t. I can’t. Because she is not human. Of all the lessons I have learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel I’ve learned you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes with mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.
I put White’s book on the shelves, make myself a cup of tea. I am in a contemplative mood. I’d brought the hawk into my world and then I pretended I lived in hers. Now it feels different: we share our lives happily in all their separation. I look down at my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she had been fractious with hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I’d pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I thought I had lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she’d helped mend, not make.
Questions for reflection
- When has an experience of the natural world had a healing effect on you or someone you know?
- Are humans creatures within creation or beings set above the rest of creation?
- Why do you think we try to give natural beings “meanings that shore up our own views of the world”? What examples can you think of?
- How much do you think we learn from living closely together with animals, whether as pets or as working or farm animals?
Some further reading
J.R.R Tolkien (1955) The Lord of the Rings
James Vance Marshall (1959) Walkabout
Peter Hǿeg (1992) Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow
Wendell Berry (Poem), The Peace Of Wild Things