Sunday, February 14, 2016

H is for Hawk: The Story of a Woman Who Flew with a Hawk and Came Back

When I first read a year ago the excellent review of Helen McDonald's H is for Hawk by the New York Times, I made a mental note to read the book when I got the time. And it stayed there half forgotten. A few weeks ago, it was jogged back into my memory when I saw  a red tailed hawk securing a nice afternoon snack of a squirrel from my backyard. In the pictures below you will see the tail of the squirrel among the leaves while its head was pinned under the bird's claws. The backyard carnage disturbed me quite a bit. I wondered if I had created the conditions (I have several bird baths scattered around the yard from which squirrels drink) that made my backyard a hunting ground for the hawks. Anyway, this incident sent me to get the aforementioned book from the library. I read it in one go. Then, I read it again and, again. And then I picked up my pen and wrote down several of the best passages in the book. Below is a synopsis.

Red Tailed Hawk in my Backyard with the Squirrel

H is for Hawk is a three-part memoir that McDonald wrote a few years after the sudden death of her beloved father. The first part narrates the shock of loss, various stages of grief and the healing. Interwoven into the narrative of her loss and grieving, is the story of a goshawk that she decided to train while mourning for her father. The third part is a biography of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, who too many years ago tried to train a goshawk with tragic results and chronicled his efforts in a book titled  The Goshawk

McDonald, an experienced falconer herself, does not make the mistakes that White made. In her hands, the baby goshawk blossoms into an excellent hunter and  it is the telling of this tale that captivated me. Goshawks  (genus:Accipiter gentilis), the most ferocious of all raptors, can be tamed and trained by humans. Yet, they are not warm and cuddly domestic pets loyal and devoted to their masters. They are visceral creatures primed to hunt and kill. As one falconer explains to the author, "If you want a well-behaved goshawk, you just have to do one thing. Give 'em the opportunity to kill things. Kill as much as possible. Murder sorts them out". To her credit, unlike T.H. White, McDonald never attempts to make the hawk human. (In fact, in her current state, she wants to be more like the hawk, "solitary, self-possessed, free from grief". ) As she moves through her reclusive life with the hawk in the middle of a bustling urban setting, she becomes extraordinarily attuned to the bird's moods. Here she writes: 
The first few days with a wild new hawk are a delicate,reflexive dance of manners. To judge when to scratch your nose without offence, when to walk and when to sit, when to retreat and when to come to close, you must read your hawk's state of mind. You do this by watching her posture and her feathers, the workings of which turn the bird's shape into exquisitely controlled barometer of mood...Feathers held tight to the body mean "I am afraid". Held loosely mean "I am at ease"...A frowning contraction of the crines around her beak and an almost imperceptible narrowing of her eyes mean something like "happy"; a particular fugitive expression on her face, oddly distant and reserved, meant "sleepy".
McDonald names her hawk Mabel, from amabilis, meaning loveable or dear. One day she discovers that the baby hawk loves to play catch with crumpled pieces of paper and peek-a-boo through a rolled up magazine. "Her eyes narrowed in bird-laughter, she shakes her tail rapidly from side to side and shivers with happiness".  

Author Helen McDonald with Mabel

As much as McDonald's prefers this splendid isolation with her hawk, she recognizes that she needs to "man" the hawk and train it to fly to her upraised fist at the sound of the whistle from five feet, ten feet and finally from fifty feet. Every foot of separation from the hawk is fraught with anxiety and "the thump of her gripping talons on the glove was miracle. It was always a miracle. I choose to be here. I eschew the air, the woods, the fields. There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning".

Finally, the day of reckoning arrives. What she has to do with the hawk. Kill things. Make death. To train a goshawk and "not letting it hunt seemed to me like raising a child and not letting it play".  Hunting with the hawk served another purpose too. The hawk was a "bright, vital", creature,"secure in her place in the world... 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".

She becomes a co-conspirator in Mabel's hunting games. She flushes out pheasants and rabbits for the bird. The first time Mabel makes a kill, McDonald has a revelation: "I stare at the hawk as she grips the dead pheasant, and her mad eyes stare back at me...And everything changes. The hawk stops being a thing of violent death. She becomes a child. She is a child. A baby hawk that has just worked out who she is. What she's for. I reach down and start, unconsciously as a mother helping a child with her dinner, plucking the pheasant with the hawk. For the hawk". 

McDonald lets her fly higher and higher and hunt free on her own. Mabel turns into an apt pupil. There is a terrific almost cinematic description when McDonald and the bird go hawking together in a dense woodland area: 

"Mabel has grasped  how woodland hawking works, and is hugely attentive. Flying a goshawk in a scape of obstacles and broken sight-lines makes the connection between us hugely manifest. She breaks through twigs to come down to my fist when I whistle, and she follows me as I walk, moving above me like a personal angel whenever I am out of sight. I look up and see her crouching, staring at me with round eyes, pupils dilated with excitement and attention, crayon-yellow toes gripping dead ash branches. "

Magical though the hawk is, McDonald begins to realize that "hands are for other humans to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks...They are 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". Soon, with help from family, friends and SSRI, McDonald's starts on the path to recovery. And gets ready to send the bird to the aviary where she will drop all her feathers and grow new ones that will be barred stone-grey and white and her eyes will turn deep orange of glowing coals. For her, this moment comes with a profound understanding that there are "world of things out there which are things in themselves but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up own view of the world; 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". 

Beautifully said.

In reading this book, I learned several new words: austringer; jess; yarak; creance; rouse; bate; manning.

Note Red tailed hawk is a member of genus Buteo also known as buzzards. Goshawk is a member of genus Accipiter gentilis.

Linked to Paint Party Friday. On Jo's  suggestion  (, I will be tagging ppf images on my instagram account. The tag will be #ppf. My IG handle is @dharmakarmaarts. If you are on IG, let me know your handle. I will be happy to follow you. 

Red Tailed Hawk

Mabel (young)