Sunday 7 February 2016

H is for Hawk

I read about 'H is for Hawk' by Helen Macdonald when it first came out and put it on the list. Then I noticed my dad was reading it, but had to wait to borrow it until mum had read it too. It is about so many things, but the events of the story were prompted by the sudden and unexpected death of Helen's father. The focussed attention that is required to train a Goshawk seems very much to be a means of avoiding contact with the world and in a way, as she admits to herself, escaping from the emotional turmoil of being human. 

This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision by a novice but a long term ambition by someone who had been fascinated by and knowledgeable about birds of prey from childhood. It is in no way an instructional manual for hawk training, though there is plenty of technical information about falconry in general and hawks specifically. The book is in some ways a homage to the sport of falconry, though one who trains and hunts with a hawk is called an austringer not a falconer: she talks a lot about the long history of falconry, and the books written about it, but alongside her own story she chooses to tell the tortured tale of T.H. White, who wrote a book called 'The Goshawk' that had sparked her original childhood fascination with hawks. 

I think I liked the book because her love of the English countryside really comes through in the way she writes about it, but she does not have some kind of old-world naive sentimental view of it, she seems to relish the impact that humans and the environment have had on each other. 

"Here I was standing in Evelyn's Travelling Sands. Most of the dunes are hidden by pines - the forest was planted here in the 1920s to give us timber for future wars - and the highwaymen long gone. But it still feels dangerous, half-buried, damaged. I love it because of all the places I know in England, it feels to me the wildest. It's not an untouched wilderness like a mountaintop, but a ramshackle wilderness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness. It's rich with the sense of an alternative countryside history; not just the grand, leisured dreams of landed estates, but a history of industry, forestry, disaster, commerce and work. I couldn't think of a more perfect place to find goshawks. They fit this strange Breckland landscape to perfection, because their history is just as human." (p.7)

She quotes this lovely vivid piece from White's writings, that captures a real understanding of wildness and how it rubs up against, but is also part of, human nature. Here he is commenting on another book he was reading, and an incident of a lost hawk:

"The sentence was: 'She reverted to a feral state.' A longing came to mind, then, that I should be able to do this also. The word 'feral' had a kind of magical potency which allied itself with two other words, 'ferocious' and 'free'. 'Fairy', 'Fey', 'aerial' and other discreditable alliances ranged themselves behind the great chord of 'ferox'. To revert to a feral state! I took a farm-labourers cottage at five shillings a week, and wrote to Germany for a goshawk.
Feral. He wanted to be free. He wanted to be ferocious. He wants to be fey, a fairy, ferox. All those elements of himself he'd pushed away, his sexuality, his desire for cruelty, for mastery: all these were suddenly there in the figure of the hawk." (p.45)

It is also something of a love story, for how could you not fall in love with such an awesome creature. Here, their first meeting:

"the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of the world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk's wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porcupine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers." (p.53)

Helen talks about her relationship with her father, both the way he influenced her and also the things she did not know about him until later. He was a photographer and she gives this description of a photograph she recalls, it is so detailed it left me with a curiosity to see the image, though I can't seem to find much about him anywhere:

"Henri Cartier-Bresson called the taking of a good photograph a decisive moment. 'Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera,' he said. 'the Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone for ever.' I thought of one of those moments as I sat there waiting for the hawk to eat from my hand. It was a black-and-white photograph my father had taken many years ago of an elderly street-cleaner with a white goatee beard, wrinkled socks and down-at-heel shoes. Crumpled work trousers, work gloves, a wooden beret. The camera is low, on the pavement: Dad must have crouched in the road to take it. the man is bending down, his besom of birch twigs propped against his side. He has taken off one of his gloves, and between the thumb and first finger of his bare hand he is offering a crumb of bread to a sparrow on the kerbstone. The sparrow is caught mid-hop at exactly the moment it takes the crumb from his fingers. And the expression on the man's face is suffused with joy. He is wearing the face of an angel." (p.72)

The book is full of descriptions of their training and hunting together. She talks a lot about taking flight with the hawk, or of allowing herself to become wild with her, as she works through the intense period of grief where she allows the rest of her life to fall by the wayside. But I found again and again that what she comes back to are detailed descriptions and reactions to the natural environment. It was this atmosphere that she created that, again, enamoured the book to me:

"I hold my arm high, wait for her to look about, and cast her off my fist into the gusty wind. She glides down to the far hedge and swings up into a small has, shaking her tail. I follow her down and we start hawking proper, looking for rabbits in a tangle of broken, open woodland. This line of trees is not designed for human thoroughfare. There are elder bushes, green twigs and branches starred with lichen. There are fallen oaks, clumps of vicious brambles, screens of hazel, and ivy clambering and covering stumps and extending a hand up to the trees above to scramble into the light, so the whole place is umbra's and decorated with shiny scales of ivy leaves. The air tastes of humus and decay. Each footfall breaks twigs and has that slightly uncertain, oddly hollow quality of walking on thick woodland soil." (p.258-9)

You feel quite confident in reading that this will be a tale of redemption and healing, what would be the point otherwise, and she manages to draw the lesson quite beautifully; having had several, quite visceral, descriptions of hawk injury, she sums up their relationship thus:

"I put White's book on the shelves, make myself a cup of tea. I'm in a contemplative mood. I've bought the hawk into my world and then I pretended I lived in hers. Now it feels different: we share our lives happily in all their separation. I look down at my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she'd been fractious from hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I'd pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I'd thought I'd lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she's helped mend, not make." (p.275)

I have always loved birds of prey, but I don't think you would have to to find this book interesting, because, like so many biographical tales, it is just another slant on the nature of being human. I loved it too because Mabel is not a character in the book, she remains a bird, a wild thing, linked but loosely to her human partner, one who, at a moment's notice could return to feral state without a backwards glance.

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