‘H is for Hawk’ won many “Best Non-Fiction” garlands last year and so there are no shortages of reviews, yet it is just so good that markontour would not be complete without adding to the eulogies.
Author, Helen Macdonald, has had a fascination with hunting birds since her youth. Seeking some release from despair at the premature death of her father, she buys a goshawk named Mabel, to whom she becomes almost umbilically attached. Pursuing meaning from both experiences she goes back to favourite books from her childhood, those of T.H. White, amateur falconist and author of ‘The Sword in the Stone‘. H is for Hawk thus interweaves a mini-biography of White, with the tale of Macdonald’s attempt to train this apparently most wild of hawks, and the inter-connected narrative of her struggle to deal with loss and depression.
The sections of the book relating to the death of Macdonald’s father, a newspaper photographer are tough but utterly compelling, and none more so than the moment where the family review his final photo-shoot:
“The photographs he’d taken were still on the camera they handed to my mother at the hospital. The last photograph I saw only once. I never want to see it again. But I can never stop seeing it. Blurred, taken from a low angle, far too low; an empty London street. Sodium lights, dusk, a wall tipped sideways from the vertical and running into the distance; a vanishing point of sallow, stormy sky.”
Certainly there is plenty of darkness in H is for Hawk, but it is matched by majestic descriptions of primal joy and beauty in nature. There are also facts a-plenty. The kind of facts you hope you can remember to tell your mates in the pub. I never can, but by reproducing this excerpt from an early chapter when Macdonald takes her goshawk outdoors for the first time, at least I will know where to look when I next want to show off my knowledge of falconry:
“The world she lives in is not mine. Life is faster for her; time runs slower. Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird. What is she seeing? I wonder, and my brain does backflips trying to imagine it, because I can’t. I have three different receptor-sensitivities in my eyes: red, green and blue. Hawks, like other birds, have four. This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the Earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precision that she can see with fierce clarity things that I can’t possibly resolve from the generalised blur. The claws on the toes of the house martins overhead. The veins on the wings of the white butterfly hunting its wavering course over the mustards at the end of the garden. 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.”
‘H is for Hawk’ might not be fiction but it is a total page-turner. I have never had an interest in falconry, or any desire to train a wild animal of any kind, but ultimately ‘H is for Hawk’ simply made me want to be outside and enjoying our wonderful planet while it is still a place of extraordinary diversity and beauty. As Macdonald notes, it is up to us whether or not it stays that way, something she understands with growing intensity through her growing closeness to Mabel the goshawk:
“The fields where I fly Mabel back in Cambridge are farmed organically, and they are teeming with life. These [Surrey fields] are not. There are big animals here, it is true: the deer, the foxes, the rabbits; the fields look the same, and the trees too, but look more carefully and this land is empty. There are few plants other than the crops, and a few bees, or butterflies, for the soil is dressed and sprayed with chemicals that kill. Ten years ago there were turtle doves on this land. Thirty years ago there were corn buntings and enormous flocks of lapwings. Seventy years ago there were red-backed shrikes, wrynecks and snipe. Two hundred years ago, ravens and black grouse. All of them are gone.”
There seems to be a resurgence of interest in books about the glories of nature at the moment. Let’s hope it is soon matched by growing awareness of the need to take care of the delicate balance of the eco-system that keeps humanity alive and allows us to take pleasure in the rest of life on Earth.