“I thought that to heal my hurt, I should flee to the wild. It is what people did. The nature books I'd read told me so. So many had been quests inspired by grief or sadness.”
H Is for Hawk is Helen MacDonald's poetic intertwining of memoir and nature writing. In the events following her father's death, she returns to the hobby of falconry and gives her grief over to a goshawk named Mabel.
Over the course of the book, we are treated to remarkable prose about nature, from vivid landscapes to glowing, dusky descriptions of Mabel’s regal nature. I felt the appeal of Mabel’s fierce essense reaching through the pages, igniting something wild in my chest. This is the main strength of the writing, it’s ability to stir something in the reader.
Mabel is the symbol of the wilderness that guides Helen through the loss of her father by reckoning with what it means to be human. MacDonald weaves her tale so well that I often stepped back and noticed how beautiful the words were. Subject matter flies by in such a way as to really place the reader in a state of shattered grief, panic or genuine happiness. We learn a lot about falconry in the process and MacDonald revisits a story of author T.H. White raising a goshawk, on a similar quest for ferality.
White was a tortured soul, a repressed homosexual in World War I Britan who used falconry to escape back in time, seeking Old England where he belived he could finally be himself. He continued this dream through his writing of The Once and Future King and The Sword and the Stone. For MacDonald, this escapism to “The Wild” is a direct mirror to her experience after her father’s death. Forgetting humanity for the freedom of landscape, wilderness and a bloodlusted hunt are the methods of coping with grief for Helen. Utterly irreproachable as she surveys the world, Mabel is everything Helen’s jaded heart wants to be.
But that’s not the lesson that we learn from Mabel and MacDonald. As Mabel’s training progresses, we also witness Helen’s recovery. She returns from the dark, barricaded house to the world of civilization, ventures outside for the sake of Mabel whose attention is described as “a salve for my grieving heart”. Her original desire to lose herself to the wilderness that Mabel provides is reflected back at itself as MacDonald joins the hunt and realizes the separation between herself and the hawk.
“Now the rabbit is dead, its pelt bunched between the hawk’s gripping talons, but blood upwells as she breaks into its chest, and I cannot stop watching it, this horrible, mesmerising, seeping claret filling up the space, growing jelly-like as it meets the air, like a thing alive. It was a thing alive.”
As Helen reckons with what it means to be wild and Mabel becomes more and more tame, we’re shown that recovering from grief isn’t about becoming hardened and wild, but opening up to love and moving on.
”I put White's book on the shelves, make myself a cup of tea. I'm in a contemplative mood. I'd brought 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 with 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'd helped mend, not make.”