H Is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald

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H Is for Hawk



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H Is for Hawk

Copyright © 2014 by Helen Macdonald


In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail. You might spend a week in a forest full of gosses and never see one, just traces of their presence. A sudden hush, followed by the calls of terrified woodland birds, and a sense of something moving just beyond vision. [...] Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.

But in the I960s and I970s, falconers started a quiet, unofficial scheme to bring them back. The British Falconers’ Club worked out that for the cost of importing a goshawk from the Continent for falconry, you could afford to bring in a second bird and release it. Buy one, set one free. It wasn’t a hard thing to do with a bird as self-reliant and predatory as a gos. You just found a forest and opened the box. [...] Some were released on purpose. Some were simply lost. They survived, found each other and bred, secretly and successfully. Today their descendants number around four hundred and fifty pairs. 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.


Small worlds
Hawk habits, hawk species, hawk scientific names; I learned them all, stuck pictures of raptors on my bedroom walls, and drew them, over and over again, on the edges of newspapers, on scraps of notepaper, on the margins of my school exercise books, as if by so doing I could conjure them into existence. I remember a teacher showing us photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux and explaining that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. I was indignant. I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.

Mr White
Ever since I’d read The Goshawk, I’d wondered what kind of man White was and why he had tied himself to a hawk he seemed to hate. And when I trained my own hawk a little space opened, like a window through leaves, onto this other life, in which was a man who was hurt, and a hawk who was being hurt, and I saw them both more clearly. Like White I wanted to cut loose from the world, and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.

The Goshawk
by T.H. White


The box of stars
But gosses are nervous, highly-strung birds and it takes a long time to convince them you’re not the enemy. Nervousness, of course, isn’t quite the right word: it’s simply that they have jacked-up nervous systems in which nerve pathways from the eyes and ears to the motor neurons that control their muscles have only minor links with associated neurons in the brain. Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking.

What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later. Even as I watched I’d half-realised Prideaux was a figure I’d picked out for a father. But what I should have realised, too, on those northern roads, is that what the mind does after losing one’s father isn’t just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.



In the I950s, in a small research station in Madingley a few miles north of where I lay, a scientist called Thorpe experimented on chaffinches to try to understand how they learned to sing. He reared young finches in total isolation in soundproofed cages, and listened, fascinated, to the rudimentary songs his broken birds produced. There was a short window of time, he found, in which the isolated chicks needed to hear the elaborate trills of adult song, and if that window was missed, they could never quite manage to produce it themselves. He tried exposing his isolated fledglings to looped tapes of the songs of other species: could they be persuaded to sing like tree pipits? It was a groundbreaking piece of research into developmental learning, but it was also a science soaked deep in Cold War anxieties. The questions Thorpe was asking were those of a post-war West obsessed with identity and frightened of brainwashing. How do you learn who you are? Can your allegiances be changed? Can you be trusted? What makes you a chaffinch? Where do you come from? [...] I thought of sad birds in soundproofed cages, and how your earliest experiences teach you who you are.

Hawks aren’t social animals like dogs or horses; they understand neither coercion nor punishment. The only way to tame them is through positive reinforcement with gifts of food. You want the hawk to eat the food you hold – it’s the first step in reclaiming her that will end with you being hunting partners. But the space between the fear and the food is a vast, vast gulf, and you have to cross it together. I thought, once, that you did it by being infinitely patient. But no: it is more than that. You must become invisible.




The rite of passage
Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass. But then I see ineffably birdlike things about her, familiar qualities that turn her into something loveable and close. She scratches her fluffy chin with one awkward, taloned foot; sneezes when bits of errant down get up her nose. And when I look again she seems neither bird nor reptile, but a creature shaped by a million years of evolution for a life she’s not yet lived.

For years I’d scoffed at White’s notion of hawk-training as a rite of passage. Overblown, I’d thought. Loopy. Because it wasn’t like that. I knew it wasn’t. I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

I was turning into a hawk.

To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods. Then you gain the ability to predict what it will do next. This is the sixth sense of the practised animal trainer. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. Notice what it notices. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own. [...] It’s part of being a watcher, forgetting who you are and putting yourself in the thing you are watching. That is why the girl who was me when I was small loved watching birds. She made herself disappear, and then in the birds she watched, took flight.

There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name. Call a hawk Tiddles and it will be a formidable hunter; call it Spitfire or Slayer and it will probably refuse to fly at all.




I knew the notion was fanciful, but even so there seemed some deep connection between White’s drinking and his evasiveness. And I was sure that it was the drink that irrigated White’s constant self-sabotage, for it is a common trait of alcoholics to make plans and promises, to oneself, to others, fervently, sincerely, and in hope of redemption. Promises that are broken, again and again, through fear, through loss of nerve, through any number of things that hide the deep desire, at heart, to obliterate one’s broken self.



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 I can’t possibly resolve from the generalised blur.


My walks with the hawk were stressful, requiring endless vigilance, and they were wearing me away. As the hawk became tamer I was growing wilder. Fear was contagious: it rose unbidden in my heart as people approached us. I was no longer certain if the hawk bated because she was frightened of what she saw, or if the terror she felt was mine.
‘I like to watch them because they are . . .’ And he makes a movement with one hand as if it were something lifting into the air. ‘Free,’ I say. He nods, and I do too, and in some wonder, 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: children, teenage goths, homeless people, overseas students, travellers, drunks, people on holiday. ‘We are outsiders now, Mabel,’ I say, and the thought is not unpleasant.

It was why these falconers never wondered if their own behaviour had anything to do with why their goshawks took stand in trees, or flew into fits of nerves, or rage, or attacked their dogs, or decided to fly away. It wasn’t their fault. Like women, Goshawks were inexplicable. Sulky. Flighty and hysterical. Their moods were pathological. They were beyond all reason.

But reading further back I find that in the seventeenth century goshawks weren’t vile at all. [...] These hawks, too, were talked about as if they were women. They were things to win, to court, to love. But they were not hysterical monsters.

They had won me over, these long-dead men who loved their hawks. They were reconciled to their otherness, sought to please them and be their friends. I wasn’t under any illusion that women were better off in early-modern England, and assumed it was a fear of female emancipation that had made goshawks so terribly frightening to later falconers – but even so I knew which kind of relationship I preferred.

I look at Mabel. She looks at me. So much of what she means is made of people. For thousands of years hawks like her have been caught and trapped and brought into people’s houses. But unlike other animals that have lived in such close proximity to man, they have never been domesticated. It’s made them a powerful symbol of wildness in myriad cultures, and a symbol, too, of things that need to be mastered and tamed.

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.

Trained hawks have a peculiar ability to conjure history because they are in a sense immortal. While individual hawks of different species die, the species themselves remain unchanged. There are no breeds or varieties, because hawks were never domesticated. The birds we fly today are identical to those of five thousand years ago. Civilisations rise and fall, but the hawks stay the same. This gives falconry birds the ability to feel like relics from the distant past. You take a hawk onto your fist. You imagine the falconer of the past doing the same. It is hard not to feel it is the same hawk.


The line
I feared the veering off, the sudden fright, the hawk flying away. But the beating wings brought her straight to me, and the thump of her gripping talons on the glove was a miracle. It was always a miracle. I choose to be here, it meant. I eschew the air, the woods, the fields. There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning. But it was hard, now, to distinguish between my heart and the hawk at all. When she sat twenty yards across the pitch part of me sat there too, as if someone had taken my heart and moved it that little distance.

Mabel had flown pertectly for the last two days; she’d come fifty yards instantly to my upraised fist. Everything was accelerating now towards that crucial point. Point in the sense of time. Point in the sense of aim. Point in the sense of something so sharp it hurts. Flying the hawk free, unencumbered by the creance, nothing stopping her headlong flight out and away but the lines that run between us; palpable lines, not physical ones: lines of habit, of hunger, of partnership, of familiarity. Of something the old falconers would call love. Flying a hawk free is always scary. It is where you test these lines. And it’s not a thing that’s easy to do when you’ve lost trust in the world, and your heart is turned to dust.

I had hunted with hawks for years before death meant anything to me at all. Perhaps I was then to all intents a child. I’d never considered what I was doing was cruel. I was a spectator, not a killer. Wild hawks hunted; so did mine. There seemed no useful moral difference. And falconry for me was about revelling in the flight of the hawk, never in the death it brought. But when my hawk caught things I was pleased – partly for the hawk, and partly because I had, as a child, bought into that imagined world of tweed-clad Victorian falconers, where death was visceral and ever-present and hedged with ceremonial formalities. When I watched those men with goshawks put the dead pheasant in the bag all those years ago I saw a kind of ease that bespoke centuries of social privilege and sporting confidence.

And the vocabulary I’d learned from the books distanced me from death. Trained hawks didn’t catch animals. They caught quarry. They caught game. [...] The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge. My flight from death was on her barred and beating wings. But I had forgotten that the puzzle that was death was caught up in the hawk, and I was caught up in it too.




Flying free

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.

You pour your heart, your skill, your very soul, into a thing – into training a hawk, learning the form in racing or the numbers in cards – then relinquish control over it. That is the hook. Once the dice rolls, the horse runs, the hawk leaves the fist, you open yourself to luck, and you cannot control the outcome. Yet everything you have done until that moment persuades you that you might be lucky. The hawk might catch her quarry, the cards might fall perfectly, the horse make it first past the post. That little space of irresolution is a strange place to be. You feel safe because you are entirely at the world’s mercy. It is a rush. You lose yourself in it. And so you run towards those little shots of fate, where the world turns. That is the lure: that is why we lose ourselves, when powerless from hurt and grief, in drugs or gambling or drink; in addictions that collar the broken soul and shake it like a dog. [...] I had taken flight to a place from which I didn’t want to ever return.





I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing – not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss? There is a vast difference between my visceral, bloody life with Mabel and the reserved, distanced view of modern nature-appreciation. I know that some of my friends see my keeping a hawk as morally suspect, but I couldn’t love or understand hawks as much as I do if I’d only ever seen them on screens. I’ve made a hawk part of a human life, and a human life part of a hawk’s, and it has made the hawk a million times more complicated and full of wonder to me. I think of my chastened surprise when Mabel played with a paper telescope. She is real. She can resist the meanings humans give her. But the condor? The condor has no resistance to us at all. I stare at the attenuated, drifting image on the gallery screen. It is a shadow, a figure of loss and hope; it is hardly a bird at all.


If I didn’t kill the rabbit, the hawk would sit on top of it and start eating; and at some point in the eating the rabbit would die. That is how goshawks kill. The borders between life and death are somewhere in the taking of their meal. I couldn’t let that suffering happen. Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.

I learned that momentary shouldering of responsibility that allowed me to reach down and administer the coupe de grâce to a rabbit held tight in Mabel’s feet. A part of me had to click into place and there was another part of me I had to put far away. There’s no better phrase than the old one to describe it: You have to harden your heart. I learned that hardening the heart was not the same as not caring.

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.





I told them that on our trip to Cornwall to photograph the total eclipse we’d been standing on the beach before the skies darkened when a man who said he was the reincarnation of King Arthur, a man wearing a silver diadem and long white robes, came up to Dad, and said, bewildered, Why are you wearing that suit?

Well, said Dad. You never know who you’re going to meet.

I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. Some had fixed themselves to the stars of elusive animals. Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens. Some sought wildness at a distance, others closer to home. ‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’

Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.

I thought of White and the reasons why his book had haunted me all this time. [...] It wasn’t just that I saw in his book, reflected backwards and dimly, my own retreat into wildness. It was this: of all the books I read as a child, his was the only one I remembered where the animal didn’t die.

Gos never died. He was only lost. [...] In the childish depths of my mind the hawk was out there, still in the wood, his yellow toes clutching rough bark and his pale eyes watching me from a dark tangle of branches somewhere in the multitudinous sea of a hundred thousand trees.

Gos was still out there in the forest, the dark forest to which all things lost must go. I’d wanted to slip across the borders of this world into that wood and bring back the hawk White lost. Some part of me that was very small and old had known this, some part of me that didn’t work according to the everyday rules of the world but with the logic of myths and dreams. And that part of me had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father. His death had been so sudden. There had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it happening at all. He could only be lost.


I know now that I’m not trusting anyone or anything any more. And that it is hard to live for long periods without trusting anyone or anything. It’s like living without sleep; eventually it will kill you.
I love Mabel, but what passes between us is not human. There is a kind of coldness that allows interrogators to put cloth over the mouths of men and pour water into their lungs, and lets them believe this is not torture. What you do to your heart. You stand apart from yourself, as if your soul could be a migrant beast too, standing some way away from the horror, and looking fixedly at the sky. The goshawk catches a rabbit. I kill the rabbit. There is no lust for blood in my heart. I have no heart at all. I watch it all as if I was an executioner after a thousand deaths, as if all this was just the inescapable way of the world. I don’t think it is. I pray it isn’t.

Magical places
She is building a landscape of magical places too. She makes detours to check particular spots in case the rabbit or the pheasant that was there last week might be there again. It is wild superstition, it is an instinctive heuristic of the hunting mind, and it works. She is learning a particular way of navigating the world, and her map is coincident with mine. Memory and love and magic. 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.

The new world
Yoder is a passage hawk, one who already knows how to hunt, who has in the weeks since leaving his nest had to learn a hundred different ways of encountering air and rain and wind and quarry, and learn them fast to survive. American falconers are permitted to trap and fly a bird like this over its first winter, and then release it in the spring to return to the wild and breed. Falconers here can do this because they are tested and licensed by the state. It’s a good system. I wish we had it at home.

Winter histories
There’s a long vein of chalk-mysticism buried in English nature-culture, and I know that what I’m feeling, standing here, partakes of it. I’m guilty because I know that loving landscapes like this involves a kind of history that concerns itself with purity, a sense of deep time and blood-belonging, and assumes that these solitudinous windswept landscapes are finer, better, than the landscapes below.

Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. 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. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.

History, and life too. It might resemble Old England here but it is not anything like the country of four hundred years ago, of one hundred years ago. [...] I wish that we would not fight for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are. I wish we would fight, instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness.


Climate change


Enter spring
Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.



text checked (see note) Dec 2020

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