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.