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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

H Is for Hawk

The author, Helen Macdonald, gets absorbed in the world of falconry as a way to deal with her father's grief in H Is for Hawk, which is very moving, expressive book about a hobby that most of us know nothing about. She writes reverently about it and her goshawk, called Mabel. My only concern is, what good does this do for the hawk?

"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." Macdonald, since childhood, has been fascinated by birds of prey. "I was a scrawny, too-tall child with ink on my fingers, binoculars around my neck, and legs covered in plasters. I was shy, pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, fantastically clumsy, hopeless at sport, and allergic to dogs and horses. But I had an obsession. Birds. Birds of prey most of all. I was sure they were the best things that had ever existed."

Her father, a photographer and one time airplane spotter, has died and she, a college professor, is bereft. She plunges into books on the subject and gets herself a goshawk, which is a large hawk that feeds on rabbits and pheasants. They can be trained to sit on their trainer's fists and then fly off to hunt, returning to their owner.

Macdonald is never so brilliant as when she describes Mabel: "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 porpentine. 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."

She also writes a parallel story of T. H. White, the man best known for writing The Once and Future King, who was also a falconer, and wrote a book about it called The Goshawk. Macdonald notes how his love of the sport infuses his stories. "Reading The Sword in the Stone after reading The Goshawk is a deeply curious thing. You start to confuse which forest is which. One is the tangled wildwood of Arthur’s Britain, a refuge for outlaws, hawks and wicked men. The other is the tangled forest around Stowe. It too is a refuge for outlaws, hawks and wicked men, the place White hoped would give him the freedom to be who he was."

Falconry is a pretty fascinating hobby, but Macdonald warns: "Breeding goshawks isn’t for the faint-hearted. I’ve had friends who’ve tried it and shaken their heads after only one season, scratching their newly greyed hair in a sort of post-traumatic stupor. ‘Never again’, they say. ‘Ever. Most stressful thing I’ve ever done.’" It sort of represents, at least I think it does to Americans, as something the very rich do. There was a commercial where someone won the lottery and went out got a falcon. Macdonald quotes another writer: "The American writer and ecologist 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. That is why he considered it the perfect hobby."

But here's my problem with the book, and one that is almost hardly addressed--how is it justified to take a wild animal and imprison and train it? Goshawks are not domesticated, Macdonald makes that clear. They are not pets. Therefore it is taking a creature meant for the wild and using it for the amusement of humans. Even if it helps someone get over their grief, it's not a boon to the hawk. She does make a passing aside to those who object: "How you can talk of love for a bird after subjecting our wonderful predatory birds to such torture is beyond a normal mind,’ the letter ran. ‘Is there not enough cruelty in the world without adding to it for one’s amusement or hobby?’" She does not answer the question.

There are also moments of questionable ethics. Mabel tracks down a rabbit, the prey slipping down a hole, the hawk losing its grip. Macdonald reaches in and grabs hold of the rabbit, assisting the bird. I felt very sorry for the rabbit there, thinking "dirty pool." Should a human assist a predator? Shouldn't the rabbit get its fair chance?

My fundamental belief is that wild animals should be left alone and not exploited, whether it be in a circus on on the wrist of someone looking for inner peace. Otherwise, this is a dazzlingly written book, though even at a short length it feels drawn out, as if it should have been a magazine piece. But I'll never look at hawks the same way again: "Mabel held her wings out from her sides, her head snaking, reptilian, eyes glowing. It felt like I was holding the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle. Soft grass underfoot. One hand out to steady myself, we picked our way around to the final corner. And then I slowly extended my gloved fist out from the screen of brush."

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