I recently finished reading, H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I stumbled across it in a bookstore in Berkeley called, Books Inc. A real bookstore. The small kind that has a mini-review or commentary by the staff every few books on the shelf. It was refreshing to be there. I didn't realize it was a NY Times Bestseller. It just drew my eye and looked interesting.
According to her page at The Marsh Agency, Ms. Macdonald is a, "writer, poet, illustrator, historian, and naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Over the years she's also worked as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, as a professional falconer, assisted with the management of raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia, and bred hunting falcons for Arab royalty. She's also sold paintings, worked as an antiquarian bookseller, organised academic conferences, shepherded a flock of fifty ewes and once attended an arms fair by mistake."
H is for Hawk is moving and fascinating, but I'm also very happy to report that even if the subject didn't interest me, I would have enjoyed the book because the woman can write. Sometimes I'll read a book, particularly fiction, and while I may be enjoying the story, I find myself editing the writing- this passage was awkwardly phrased, that sentence would have been better at the end of the paragraph, etc. Not so for Macdonald's writing. It's both beautiful and accessible.
Here's a sample (p. 181):
But then the pheasant is flushed, a pale and burring chunk of muscle and feathers, and the hawk crashes from the hedge towards it. And all the lines that connect heart and head and future possibilities, those lines that also connect me with the hawk and the pheasant and with life and death, suddenly become safe, become tied together in a small muddle of feathers and gripping talons that stand in mud in the middle of a small field in the middle of a small county in a small country on the edge of winter.
Shortly after her father's sudden death, Macdonald decided to train a goshawk. She'd been fascinated by hawks all her life, and had extensive experience training them. But this was her first attempt at training the notoriously challenging goshawk.
There are a number of reasons she made this decision. One early-Spring morning, she felt restless, got up at dawn, and for no discernible reason, drove to the Brecklands to see goshawks, which are rarely visible in the open except at that time of year. The experience reminded her of watching for sparrowhawks with her father, when she was a child. She brought home a piece of reindeer moss she'd been gripping while watching the goshawks that day, and three weeks later, she was staring at the moss when her mother called to tell her her father had died.
That's the first connection. One of the brilliant things about the book, and there are many, is that Macdonald clearly recognizes the complex interactions between her thoughts and feelings, and her behavior. But she does not dwell on them, as one would in a typical psychoanalytic case report. She simply describes them, and leaves the reader to draw conclusions, although she does, occasionally, mention Melanie Klein, Freud, and other analytic thinkers.
The next connection is closer to the heart of her mourning. She describes a summer experience she set up for herself when she was 12, and went to spend several weeks with some gentlemen who flew goshawks:
I was terrified. Not of the hawks: of the falconers. I'd never met men like these. They wore tweed and offered me snuff. They were clubbable men with battered Range Rovers and vowels that bespoke Eton and Oxford, and I was having the first uncomfortable inklings that while I wanted to be a falconer more than anything, it was possible I might not be entirely like these men...
On the first day of that trip, she watched a goshawk kill a pheasant, her first sight of death. She also watched as later that same day, the goshawks seemed to lose interest in their handlers and flew off into the trees. Some took hours before returning:
The disposition of their hawks was peculiar. But it wasn't unsociable. It was something much stranger. It seemed that the hawks couldn't see us at all, that they'd slipped out of our world entirely and moved into another, wilder world from which humans had been utterly erased.
After that summer, she chose to stay away from goshawks:
I never forgot those silent, wayward goshawks. But when I became a falconer I never wanted to fly one. They unnerved me. The were things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets. Falcons were the raptors I loved...
Yet another connection has to do with T. H. White, best known as the author of, The Once and Future King. He also wrote a book entitled, The Goshawk, his firsthand account of training his own goshawk, who he named, Gos. It was a disaster. It's like an instruction manual for how NOT to train a goshawk, or any other animal, for that matter. As a child, Macdonald reviled White for his inconsistent, and ultimately cruel treatment of Gos. But in H is for Hawk, she comes to view, The Goshawk, differently, as White's account of his conflicts surrounding sadism and love, and his struggle to become himself through his identification with Gos.
Macdonald is a much better trainer than White, although she doubts herself constantly. Is she feeding Mabel (her goshawk) too much, or too little, or the wrong kind of food? The feeding of a goshawk is not a trivial, Jewish mother issue. Goshawks weigh around two pounds, and a couple ounces either way can throw off their flying completely. But the level of Macdonald's worry is indicative of her mourning, which, by her own acknowledgement, is mixed with depression to a degree that would bewilder the most hardcore DSM-5 enthusiast.
Certainly, Mabel is a comfort to Macdonald. She turns out to be not that difficult to train, and is even playful-there's a lovely description of a game involving some rolled up paper, with Macdonald commenting that she hadn't realized goshawks DID play. She attributes at least some of their affinity to their shared gender, and notes that all the falconers and austringers (solitary goshawk trainers) who have described the bird as difficult and sulky have been men.
Incidentally, I attempted to contact Macdonald through her agent to get permission to use a photo of Mabel that I found online, in this post, but I never heard back from either of them-I suspect my message didn't get through-so I'm not comfortable using the picture here. But if you google "Mabel the goshawk" you will see that she was very beautiful.
Macdonald traces her bonding with Mabel, as well as her use of Mabel to isolate herself while she's mourning. We sense the appeal of the hawk's ability to "slip out of this world". By identifying with Mabel, she can distance herself from her pain, or access her father, who has "moved into another, wilder world from which humans had been utterly erased."
And we see the painful, drawn out process of letting go that Freud wrote about in Mourning and Melancholia (Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV, Pp. 244-5):
In what, now, does the work which mourning performs consist? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in presenting it in the following way. Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition—it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it.
At some point, Macdonald has to literally let go of Mabel's jesses and allow her to fly free, to have faith that she'll return.
I learned a lot of fun terminology from the book, too. Jesses are the leather straps that fit through the anklets on a hawk's legs. Bating is a, "Headlong dive of rage and terror, by which a leashed hawk leaps from the fist in a wild bid for freedom." That was me quoting Macdonald quoting White.
She describes making jesses as a child. Then she comments, " I have a suspicion that all those hours making jesses and leashes weren't just preparation games...It reminds me of a paper by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, the one about the child obsessed with string; a boy who tied together chairs and tables, tied cushions to the fireplace, even...Winnicott saw this behaviour as a way of dealing with fears of abandonment by the boy's mother, who'd suffered bouts of depression. For the boy, the string was a kind of wordless communication, a symbolic means of joining. It was a denial of separation. Holding tight. Perhaps those jesses might have been unspoken attempts to hold on to something that had already flown away."
Macdonald had a twin brother who died shortly after birth. She wasn't told about him until years later, but she wasn't that surprised by the news. She wonders if a detailed drawing of a kestrel's jesses, that she drew when she was six, was, "...a way of holding tight to something I didn't know I'd lost, but knew had gone..." And she imagines that the jesses she makes for Mabel are a way of similarly holding on to her father. But I wondered if her father's death hit her as hard as it did, in part, because of the unremembered but somehow perceived loss of her twin, now being re-experienced. And I wondered further what it means to her that she survived, and her brother didn't.
Because we also see the connection between death and aggression. Mabel is beautiful and playful, but she is a powerful killer. That's what she does. That's why Macdonald got her in the first place. So they could hunt together.
Mabel, as she kills her prey, becomes the actualization of Macdonald's rage against her father's death, and against her father, for dying. When she and the bird are one, she becomes the master of death, able to decide who lives and who dies. A powerful wish fulfilled, only too late for her father.
Ultimately, with Mabel's assistance, but also of her own accord, Macdonald gets through her mourning period and is able to resume her life with some joy. To begin again.
Happy New Year!
I really don't get twitter. I couldn't figure out how to send a private message to Helen Macdonald to ask permission to use a photo of Mabel, which is why I contacted her agent. But when I tweeted this post, I added her twitter handle, and she read the tweet, and apparently the post, and gave me permission to use a photo. So, this is Mabel. Wasn't she beautiful? (Disclosure: I grew up with parakeets, and I have a soft spot for birds):