The Fire That Burns the Hurt Away

By Robert Root

November 4, 2022

The Fire That Burns the Hurt Away

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

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.

—Helen Macdonald

Contemporary creative nonfiction allows writers the opportunity to generate a unique—even idiosyncratic—approach to their work. For example, if one considers writing a book about a bird, one needn’t be confined to a scientifically ornithological presentation or a conscientiously reportorial record or a tightly observant narrative. Instead, a writer might combine a range of literary and academic and journalistic elements into a unique blend. On the back cover of Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, which first appeared in 2016, a quote from The Economist’s review describes the book as “One part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world, and one part literary meditation.” Having read other books about birds—not only Audubon Society compilations but also volumes centered on the peregrine, the swallow, the eagle, and the osprey—I’d argue that Macdonald’s book fits that description aptly, especially since those “parts” are evocatively and often lyrically combined throughout.

The memoir thread is anchored in Macdonald’s response to the unexpected death of her father on a London street. Father and daughter were close; his loss capsizes her sense of herself in the world and haunts her throughout the book. She asks herself, “Had I learned to be a watcher from my father?” She “kicked the thought away” but then remembered, “All those thousands upon thousands of of photographs [her cameraman] father had taken,” his stepping back from the world to commit what he sees to memory. She was already an experienced falconer and her need to escape her preoccupation with his passing focuses her on the demanding challenge of training a goshawk, a bird more feral and independent than the falcons with which she has been familiar. “I never thought I’d train a goshawk,” she writes. “Ever. I’d never seen anything of myself reflected in their solitudinous, murderous eyes. Not for me, I thought, many times. Nothing like me. But the world had changed and so had I.” Coping with her father’s death forces her to concentrate on something as or more difficult, and she hopes that training a goshawk will fulfill that need.

Macdonald felt that, in her childhood fascination with birds and her habit of feeling a deep immersion in those she watched, she made herself “disappear.” She refers frequently to T.H. White’s much earlier book, The Goshawk. Written in the the mid-1930s, it recounts his failure to train a goshawk and was only published in 1951, after he added an epilogue explaining what he should have done. Macdonald had read the book as a child, found it disappointing, but returned to it when she resolved to train a goshawk herself. Having learned from White how he kept his psychological distance from his goshawk so that bird and man each maintained their individual independence continually guides her in shifting the balance of her relationship with Mabel, her hawk. Instead of making it conform to her objectives, she increasingly tries to think more like the bird and adjust to its intentions and strategies. She tells us, “I had put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, and as the days passed in the darkened room my humanity was burning away.” The more she takes the goshawk into the fields and woods where it will find prey, the more she adopts the bird’s values and the more she alters her behavior to the bird’s needs. When she begins snapping the necks of rabbits in Mabel’s clutches and being feasted upon, she is operating no longer as a trainer but as an accessory, an associate who has assumed the hawk’s perspective.

Referring in passing to a number of other earlier studies in falconry, one published as early as 1686, Macdonald’s research includes White’s unpublished letters and manuscripts, stored at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s evidence of how writers are inspired and influenced by what earlier writers wrote, including what appears only in unpublished manuscripts, and how they build their own distinctive text. The literary scholarship of H Is for Hawk is thorough and deftly integrated into the narrative of her relationship with Mabel, her goshawk. 

As much as she tries to concentrate on training her goshawk, she can’t ignore her grief for her father. When Mabel kills a pheasant for the first time, Helen helps remove the feathers, then sits to watch her feed. 

Feathers lift, blow down the hedge, and catch in spiders’ webs and then thorn branches. . . . And I start crying. Tears roll down my face. For the pheasant, for the hawk, for Dad and all his patience, for that little girl who stood by a fence and waited for the hawks to come. 

Her power of empathy is a burden and a strength. Macdonald will observe and commiserate and perform but seldom stand aloof or remote. Eventually she reaches a point where the goshawk is the dominant partner in their relationship, and she has to recognize how much their roles have altered. Essentially, unlike other stories of a human’s interaction with an animal, Macdonald is able to make readers understand the distinctive nature of the goshawk and its separateness from the values “owners” impose on it. Only when she feels that she has adopted the attitude and outlook of the goshawk does she understand how bird and woman might be able to live comfortably with one another. She observes: “There is a vast difference between my visceral, bloody life with Mabel and the reserved, distant view of modern nature appreciation.”

Once Macdonald realizes how, in taking up the challenge of the goshawk, she has stepped further away from the self she occupied before her father’s death, she recognizes her own identity. She tells us how Aldo Leopold “once wrote that falconry was a balancing act between wild and tame—not just in the hawk, but inside the heart and mind of the falconer.” Eventually Macdonald reassures us that “the balance is righting, now, and the distance between Mabel and me increasing. I see, too, that her world and my world are not the same, and some part of me is amazed I ever thought they were.”

One of the wonders here is the way in which we are drawn into the goshawk’s worldview as well as into the narrator’s experience of it and an appreciation that she can relocate her self in her human form.

H Is for Hawk is a richly rewarding read, simultaneously moving and intimate, learned and authoritative, lyrical and informative. It invites us into the writer’s consciousness and illustrates that what we read shapes our own life experiences, which can have a lasting effect on what and who we think we are. H Is for Hawk is a vital, enduring literary nature memoir.

 

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Grove Press
 $26.00 Hardcover  | Buy Now

 

Root

Robert Root has edited or co-edited three anthologies—The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction; The Island Within Us: Isle Royale Artists-in-Residence 1991-1998; Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place—and written two craft studies—The Nonfictionist’s Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction and E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist. He has also published the travel narratives Recovering Ruth: A Biographer’s Tale; Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now; Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth, and The Arc of the Escarpment as well as the essay collections Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves; Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place and two memoirs, Happenstance and Lineage. A professor emeritus at Central Michigan University, his website is www.rootwriting.com.

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