Wednesday, November 26, 2014

H is for Hawk

I don't generally read memoirs but sometimes it is good to get out of your comfort zone and read something different. For several months I kept seeing notices about H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. It had a lot of characteristics that don't make it "my kind of reading." I'm not a big reader of "literary" books--too many books, too little time. It's described as a "misery memoir" and I don't need to read about other people's miserable lives. It's won a lot of awards and that usually means it's a "literary" book (see previous comment). It's British and they have a funny way of spelling words. Also every time I looked at the jacket, I was sure this was a book for kids and was disappointed when I realized (once again) it was not. I know. I'm shallow but there are only so many hours in the day and I spend as many of them birding as I do reading.

On the other hand, the book is about hawks and other birds. So I jumped in--and I'm glad I did.

Struggling to deal with her father's sudden death, Helen returns to a passion of her youth--falconry and hawking. Specifically the book explores her work with a goshawk she names Mabel. Goshawks are described as "birdwatcher's dark grail," but also as the ruffians of the bird world. Goshawks are a group of more than two dozen birds of prey although the Norther Goshawk is the only one found in Europe and North America. (View a short clip from the Smithsonian Channel of a goshawk in Korea striking for the kill.) Macdonald's lyrical descriptions of the goshawk brings the bird to life.

In addition to being a memoir of the months following the loss of her father when she trained Mabel as her way of grieving, H is for Hawk is a history of falconry and a nature book. Macdonald mentions early on that as a child she "cleaved to falconry's disconcertingly complex vocabulary." There are so many great words that are high scoring ones for Scrabble! Knowing the correct words was extremely important in the old world of birding (A spy was terrified that he'd be found out because he had trouble remembering the idiosyncratic words, while the terminology also helped maintain falconry as a sport for the upper crust in Europe.) The history of falconry, as told by Macdonald, is fascinating. They were used in the Crusades and were political pawns in wars. Saladin refused to return the "white gyrfalcon owned by King Philip I of Spain" when it got loose during the Siege of Acre. But falconry and hawking goes back even farther to 2,000 BC China and reading H is for Hawk I learned things I never knew I'd like to know.

Falconry is also the story of survival for the goshawk in Britain. Labeled as "vermin" rather than hunting companions, they were persecuted to extinction in England by the late 19th century. Macdonald mentions that she has a photograph of the "stuffed remains of one of the last birds to be shot." By the 1960s and 1970s falconers started to reintroduce the goshawk, importing them from the Continent. Part of the reintroduction included setting one free for every one you used for hunting. These birds survived and found each other so that today there are over 450 pairs in Britain. The birds flown today are identical to those of 5,000 years ago.

Mixed in with the contemporary story is Macdonald's obsession with T.H. White, best known for writing  The Sword in the Stone. Also a falconer, White wrote a memoir about his training, published as The Goshawk (which Macdonald read as a young girl!) and Macdonald frequently contrasts her training of Mabel with White's training of his hawk, Gos. She postulates about White's lonely and brutal childhood and its impact on his training techniques with his hawk. Who knew that the author of the best books on Arthurian legend had such a secret and tragic life! (Side note: Macdonald came to the University of Texas at Austin to research White, as his papers are held at the Harry Ransom Center.)

Goshawk killing a heron (Creative Commons)
And finally there is the specific story of  training Mabel. Following Macdonald through months spent working with Mabel, the reader also learns about many other birds in Britain, the birds the pair see during their walks and flights. While I cringed at descriptions of Mabel's kills, discovering how the hawk hunts and how falconers teach them to hunt and return was amazing. (And frankly, as a vegetarian I had a hard time reading about Macdonald's feeding chicks and other meat to Mabel. Yes, I know animals don't make the choice to change their menus but the descriptions are fairly bloody.)  Macdonald mentions that for her, falconry is"about revelling in the flight of the hawk, never in the death it brought." But like a proud parent at a sporting event, she admits to being pleased when Mabel was successful.

Anyone interesting in raptors will race through this book!