H is for Hawk: A journey into the natural world

H is for HawkOnce in a great while we treat ourselves to a diversion from our beat in ecology, but we rarely stray far from the natural world.  In the case of H is for Hawk, we were attracted by rave reviews and a bird as the central character.  The author, Helen Macdonald, is an academic historian and poet.  Her writing is exquisite and her intimate relationship with her hawk is informed by a lifetime of experience as a falconer.

Helen finds herself in the grip of a profound grief at the loss of her much-loved father, who died suddenly and prematurely.  After stumbling about for some months, she assigns herself a difficult task as her path out of despair.  Although she has trained many birds of prey since childhood, she has never trained a goshawk because of their fearsome reputation as both vicious and temperamental.

She seeks guidance from a classic book by T.H. White, best known for his novels about the legends of King Arthur.  He has a brief, but intense relationship with a goshawk which he describes in grim detail in The Goshawk.  He blunders through an ultimately failed attempt to train his goshawk.  His confrontational attempt to tame the wild bird informs Helen’s partnership with her hawk.

Helen retreats to a dark apartment with a freezer full of dead chicks to feed Mabel, the unlikely name she chooses for her goshawk.  It is a long, slow process of gaining the bird’s trust, requiring patience and intense focus.  First trips outdoors are fraught with peril.  Hunting is first done on a long leash, to ensure the bird’s return.  When the bird is freed from the leash to hunt on her own, we share Helen’s terror that the bird may not return.

Helen must run as fast as she can to follow the bird as it chases its prey.  She is often confronted by dense thickets as the bird soars above her, oblivious to the obstacles Helen encounters on the ground.  It is after such a heart-pounding chase that Helen has an encounter with humans, which is the point of this post.

Origins of the inhabitants

At the end of a challenging hunt, Helen and Mabel encounter a herd of deer.  Helen describes the scene:

“The running deer and the running hare.  Legacies of trade and invasion, farming, hunting, settlement.  Hares were introduced, it is thought, by the Romans.  Fallow deer certainly were.  Pheasants, too, brought in their burnished hordes from Asia Minor.  The partridges possessing this ground were originally from France, and the ones I see here were hatched in game-farm forced-air incubators.  The squirrel on the sweet chestnut?  North America.  Rabbits?  Medieval introductions.  Felt, meat, fur, feather, from all corners.  But possessing the ground, all the same.”

On this bucolic scene, a couple appears and admires the herd of deer:  “The deer.  Special, aren’t they, those ones.  Rare…A herd of deer.  Doesn’t it give you hope?  Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all those immigrants coming in?”

The encounter with the deer is ruined for Helen by this xenophobic comment:

It is a miserable walk.  I should have said something.  But embarrassment had stopped my tongue.  Stomping along, I start pulling on the thread of darkness they’d handed me.  I think of the chalk-cult countryside and all its myths of blood-belonging, and that hateful bronze falcon, of Göring’s plans to exclude Jews from German forests.  I think of the Finnish goshawks that made the Brecklands home, and of my grandfather, born on the Western Isles, who spoke nothing but Gaelic until he was ten.  And the Lithuanian builder I’d met collecting mushrooms in a wood who asked me, bewildered, why no one he’d met in England knew which were edible, and which were not.  I think of all the complicated histories that landscapes have, and how easy it is to wipe them away, put easier, safer histories in their place.”

She goes on to describe historical landscapes in Britain, both distant and recent, but changing always.  She concludes, “Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings.”  Our brief life span denies us any meaningful perspective on the landscape, nor are we capable of imagining future landscapes.  In our rapidly changing climate, the landscape will surely be radically different, yet many are unwilling to predict that change.  Some demand the historical landscape that is no longer adapted to the present climate, let alone the one predicted for the near future.

We find in Helen MacDonald a kindred spirit.  We enjoy and appreciate the landscape and its inhabitants that exist now, regardless of their origins.  They are all welcome in our natural world.

5 thoughts on “H is for Hawk: A journey into the natural world”

  1. I loved this book. Helen MacDonald writes so eloquently and accurately (and rationally!) about the natural world. Reading the book is like being spoon-fed science & history; her narrative is compelling so you don’t realize how much information she’s imparting along with her story.

  2. From a dear friend who is a friend of hawks, I’m quoting Steven Herman
    “I know the book and found it transfixing. All the falconry is clearly authentic. ”
    Thank you Million Trees for the suggested reading.

  3. I also really enjoyed this book, and the passage you quote resonated particularly with me as well. “Landscape” is such a complex concept, shaped as much by history and politics and art as by so-called “nature.” Thank you for the perceptive review!

  4. Your review of Helen MacDonald’s book H is for Hawk reminded me of my own singular experience with two magnificent goshawks. It happened in a rural section of Rhode Island where my husband and I rented a farmhouse on 1800 acres of woods and swamp; and that piece of property was bordered by others of similar magnitude and unmanaged wildness. There were few neighbors and many trails to walk.

    One trail on a neighboring property departed from our road and went through a stand of pine trees as it made its way to a lovely pond (lakes in Rhode Island are known as ponds). I walked with my dogs almost daily, and the trail to Yawgoo Pond was a favorite though less frequent destination. One summer — by now we had two daughters, a 4 yr old and a 1 yr old — I walked the pond trail with the younger on my back, the older running alongside and my two German shepherds leading the way. We came to a small clearing in the pinewood, where I heard a commotion on high, and looked up to see two large hawks guarding a nest. They watched us with interest and I them. I saw no sign of aggression and we stood and watched for a while. They only seemed to want me to know they were there and that the nest was their home. A tilted head, a few short high-pitched squawks, and fluttering among the trees, and that was about it. We walked on, had our pond experience, and greeted the hawks on our way back home. I had taken note of the substantial size and distinct characteristics, which I eagerly looked up in my Peterson guide and quickly learned they were goshawks.

    Some days later, I was talking to a neighbor who lived on the pond and was a birder. I told him about the hawks and that I had identified them as goshawks. He was quite excited, though a bit doubtful about my identification. He said he’d go look at them and would also tell a RI Audubon official who lived in a house on the other side of “our” 1800 acres. A large chunk of the property had recently been bequeathed to the Audubon Society by our wealthy, absentee landlady.

    Meanwhile, I saw the hawks a couple more times and at one point it appeared that there was at least one chick in the nest. They continued to be content with my presence. I was delighted and told my daughter’s nursery school teacher about it. She wanted to bring the whole class to see the birds and I agreed — no reason not to, I thought. On the designated day, she came with six children in addition to mine and we walked (this time without the dogs) to the clearing and sat in a circle and admired the birds. They were unflustered by our presence and went about their parental activities, though they kept an eye on us and occasionally shrieked their presence. We must have stayed there a good hour; had a picnic lunch; the children were thrilled. One or two even thought they spotted a little head protruding above the edge of the nest. The parents seemed if anything even more relaxed than usual, perhaps because the dogs were not there. If I let my imagination run free, it seemed a bit like a family gathering.

    When I saw my neighbor again, he told me he had tried to visit the birds but they had dive-bombed him in a very threatening way forcing him to leave immediately. He said his Audubon friend had also gone on a separate occasion and had been attacked even more vigorously by the birds with talons extended, and he had left quickly as well. But, in the brief encounter, he had been able to confirm that they were indeed goshawks and would be officially reporting his discovery of the birds in the organization’s newsletter. I hadn’t really questioned the birds’ identity, but I was ever so glad to know my neighbors could now believe me.

    Given this strange difference in the goshawks’ behavior, I became suspicious that the birds were able to distinguish men from women and didn’t much care for men. I asked my husband to please be a guinea pig and go by himself to the clearing. He did and the birds flew straight at him — perhaps not as threateningly as the other two had reported, but enough to cause a rapid retreat.

    Whatever the cause, this pair of goshawks trusted women — especially liked women with children, the more the merrier— and quite clearly distrustedB men! And, of course, they seemed to tolerate dogs. This whole experience made me quite fond of goshawks and especially connected to that pair. AND I was quite thankful that I hadn’t misjudged them when I decided to drop by their home with more than half a dozen 4 yr. olds in tow! Unfortunately I never did get as good a look at their young one as they had at mine. I was not there when they left the nest.

    Because of my own experience, I’m not entirely surprised that Ms. MacDonald was successful in training her goshawk, while her male “teacher” (T.H. White) was not.

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