H is for Hawk

I can’t remember who recommended H is for Hawk first, but it finally felt like the right time to read it and it was indeed. Over the course of the past week or so I’ve been spending time with Helen MacDonald and her hawk Mabel as she works through the grief of losing her father and trains Mabel.

MacDonald interweaves her story with the story of T.H. White and his story of training a goshawk. She also delves into the history of falconry, which is something I knew nothing about but it was fascinating to read the bits and pieces she refers to throughout the memoir.

But the story is about Mabel, MacDonald’s goshawk, and how through training her MacDonald works through her grief. In many ways through training Mabel, MacDonald dives into a wildness of her own and comes out the other side.

What made this book even better for me is that MacDonald is a beautiful writer. Her use of words stopped me reading to reread a passage or phrase. Maybe some day I will write half as well.

My highlights, from the kindle version of the book which I borrowed from my local library are below:

‘Mabel.’ I say the word out loud to her and watch her watching me say it. My mouth shapes the word. ‘Mabel.’ And as I say it, it strikes me that all those people outside the window who shop and walk and cycle and go home and eat and love and sleep and dream – all of them have names. And so do I.‘Helen,’ I say. How strange it sounds. How very strange. I put another piece of meat on my glove and the hawk leans down and eats. (loc 1469)

I’m standing there, my sorry human eyes overwhelmed by light and detail, while the hawk watches everything with the greedy intensity of a child filling in a colouring book, scribbling joyously, blocking in colour, making the pages its own. And all I can think is, I want to go back inside. (loc 1635)

…because I am beginning to see that for some people a hawk on the hand of a stranger urges confession, urges confidences, lets you speak words about hope and home and heart. And I realise, too, that in all my days of walking with Mabel the only people who have come up and spoken to us have been outsiders:… (loc 1815)

I had a fixed idea of what a goshawk was, just as those Victorian falconers had, and it was not big enough to hold what goshawks are. No one had ever told me goshawks played. It was not in the books. I had not imagined it was possible. I wondered if it was because no one had ever played with them. The thought made me terribly sad. (loc 1887)

When I was small I’d loved falconry’s historical glamour. I treasured it in the same way children treasure the hope that they might be like the children in books: secretly magical, part of some deeper, mysterious world that makes them something out of the ordinary. But that was a long time ago. I did not feel like that any more. I was not training a hawk because I wished to feel special. I did not want the hawk to make me feel I was striding righteously across the lands of my long-lost ancestors. I had no use for history, no use for time at all. I was training the hawk to make it all disappear. (loc 1943)

We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost. (loc 2143)

…closed my eyes against the glare and remembered the spider silk. I had walked all over it and had not seen it. I had not known it was there. It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me. (loc 2476)

The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world. (loc 3200)

I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home. (loc 3551)

I don’t have both sides. I only have wildness. And I don’t need wildness any more. I’m not stifled by domesticity. I have none. There is no need, right now, to feel close to a fetch of dark northern woods, a creature with baleful eyes and death in her foot. Human hands are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close. They’re not for breaking the necks of rabbits, pulling loops of viscera out onto leaf-litter while the hawk dips her head to drink blood from her quarry’s chest cavity. I watch all these things going on and my heart is salt. (loc 3567)

What happened over the years of my expeditions as a child was a slow transformation of my landscape over time into what naturalists call a local patch, glowing with memory and meaning. Mabel is doing the same. She is making the hill her own. Mine. Ours. (loc 3904)

Sitting by the window staring out at the sliding river, I begin to wonder if home can be anywhere, just as the wild can be at its fiercest in a run of suburban back-lots, and a hawk might find a lookout perch on a children’s play-frame more useful than one on the remotest pine. (loc 4085)

We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. (loc 4299)

I’m 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’d 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’d thought I’d lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she’d helped mend, not make. (loc 4474)