If a chance encounter with a bird of prey could have such a lasting impact, I wondered as to what it would be like to live in its continuous presence. The answer came in the form of a book I just finished reading “H For Hawk”, written by Helen Macdonald.
I finished reading it at a stretch. It is a powerful narrative of the author’s battle with depression after the death of her father. Macdonald had always been close to her father, who emerges in the book as a kind, steady, understated man. “My dad had been my dad,” she writes, “but also my friend, and a partner in crime”. It seemed like a lovely relationship. Her father a photographer, taught his young daughter bird-watching. By the age of six, she had begun teaching herself about birds of prey. Macdonald writes lucidly about her feelings after her father’s demise. In order to cope with her sense of loss she acquires a pet goshawk called Mabel. Goshawks are huge birds with a volatile and fearsome disposition. “They react to stimuli literally without thinking,” Macdonald writes, and a whole lot of stimuli can provoke their hunting instinct: squeaky doors, passing bicycles, real pheasants, but also black-and-white drawings of them! That she chose a goshawk instead of a Labrador is indicative of the turmoil within her, which is far more than that of the bird. At the time of her father’s death, she had “no partner, no children, no home. No nine-to-five job either.” Hurt by the human world, she wants nothing more to do with it. Instead, she longs to be like her bird: “solitary, self-possessed, and free from grief.” Drowning in loss, she commits herself to a creature whose defining trait is the capacity to fly away.
She interweaves her personal anguish with a parallel account of T H White who wrote a book called The Goshawk in 1951. White also got a goshawk to fill the void left by the death of a parent. The day it arrived, White dined with friends, and then was “glad to shake off with them the last of an old human life. The business of life is to divest oneself of unnecessary possessions, and mainly of other people.” He used the bird to engineer a retreat from the world, much as Macdonald does.
The book is a metaphysical tale of the battle between man and forces of nature within and without, much akin to Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea. The motif of a raptor as a symbol of grief and of the author’s struggle with depression is indisputably powerful.
While reading through the book, I also got familiarized with certain terms. A person who trains falcons is called a falconer, but a person who trains hawks is called an austringer. Young hawks are eyasses; adolescents are passagers; those caught as adults are haggards. A happy hawk signals its contentment by “rousing,”, a malcontent hawk will “bate”.
My encounters with the birds of prey have been largely confined to forays in birding. I have always found them magisterial. There is a sense of awe in spotting them in the wild.
Pitiless noon sun
The swooping hawk and her prey
Cast the same shadow.
And here are a few glimpses of my trysts with them . .