Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don't get to say when or how.”

Helen Macdonald’s (b. 1970) H is for Hawk is a stunning story of the precious minutia of owning and training a goshawk. It’s also about post-grief retrenchment and how to reopen a shattered self.

When her father dies, Macdonald is thrown into abstraction. In his slim volume of grief observed, C.S. Lewis wrote of the surprising physical effects of grief. Macdonald echoes his experience:

I felt odd: overtired, overwrought, unpleasantly like my brain had been removed and my skull stuffed with something like microwaved aluminium foil, dinted, charred and shorting with sparks.

In this abstract state, Macdonald, like many in grief, turns to something technical and active to keep her busy and engaged and somewhat normalized. She adopts a goshawk, a lifelong dream.1

Or rather, Macdonald waits patiently while the goshawk adopts her.

I must not look the hawk in the eye. I must not punish the hawk, though it bates, and beats, and my hand is raw with pecks and my face stings from the blows of its bating wings. Hawks cannot be punished. They would rather die than submit. Patience is my only weapon. Patience. Derived from patior. Meaning to suffer. It is an ordeal.

Northern Goshawk. Illustration from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), an organization that educates, advocates, and conserves birds throughout the UK. Learn more.

The relationship (to call it a hobby would be a slight) pulls Macdonald into the world of falconry, a historically significant activity in Britain, replete with Victorian masculine habits of projecting onto pets exactly what humans found most estimable (and perhaps lacking) in themselves.

In H is for Hawk, certain famous falconers are introduced, their stories retold. Macdonald sets her own place among them and slowly builds the relationship with “Mabel.”

To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods. […] You seem to feel what it feels. Notice what it notices. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own. You are exercising what the poet Keats called your chameleon quality, the ability to ‘tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment.

Turning to animals in times of grief isn’t new. In fact, their abounding love in the most trying times might account for the explosive statistics of pet ownership in the last century. But a goshawk is different; its trust and respect are earned, not given.

And yet, in that way, this creature does for Macdonald what another creature might not.

Elusive, spectacular, utterly at home, the fact of these British goshawks makes me happy. Their existence gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always something untouched by human hearts and hands. The wild can be human work.

Adult Goshawk. Illustration from the RSPB.

When people die, we wonder where they go, where they exist.

Soon after, we wonder what to do with all the love, care, attention, and conversation we once poured into their presence, their ears, their souls. Extending her humanity into this new relationship, Macdonald finds a connection and purpose: not to replace her father but to help replace her active need to love her father.

A recent study of the millennia-old habit of pet-keeping tells us a deep aspect of our humanity is ennobled by the love of an animal, and indeed many writers, thinkers, and wanderers have been subject to such grace.

Accompany Macdonald’s H is for Hawk with Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, a stunningly unique prose poem from English author Max Porter about a crow that moves in with a family following the death of their mother and wife. Porter’s work was inspired by the death of his own father and the crow poems of poet Ted Hughes—poems written by Hughes after his wife, Sylvia Plath, killed herself.

Drawing of murmuration by artist Ann Pease. 3 of 3
Though they move as one, murmurating birds only communicate to the birds nearest them and the flow movement is really just a series of subsequent communiques. Illustration by Ann Pease.

American novelist Marilynne Robinson once wrote that there is a connection in isolation. I think of her words when I consider grief. It is so individual, yet every human feels it. It sets us apart and connects us. For more on grief and loss, I warmly recommend Joan Didion’s Blue Nights and Losing the Thing Unimaginable, my own study of loss and enduring pain.