Memoir: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)



H is for Hawk is a beautifully written memoir detailing the author’s struggle with grief after the sudden and unexpected death of her father. It is also a richly descriptive piece of nature writing because Macdonald’s way of dealing with her pain was to purchase a wild hawk and go through the process of taming it.
As a child she had been determined to become a falconer and had read all the classic books on the subject, one of which was The Goshawk by T. H. White. Now years later as an adult, the idea of taming a wild bird became an obsession, and her memoir is interspersed with extracts from White’s book and reflections on the man himself.
Like T.H. White, Macdonald isolated herself and became almost feral. As her hawk, Mabel, grew tamer, she became wilder.

‘The hawk was everything I wanted be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of life.’

On the day she first took Mabel out to hunt she realised that what she had done was akin to gambling. She’d poured herself into training a hawk and then had to relinquish control over it. She lost herself in it…

‘I had found my addiction on that day out with Mabel. It was as ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin. I had taken flight to a place from which I didn’t want to ever return.’

The day of her father’s memorial service came and she had to speak. As a university professor, she had given so many lectures and talks but this terrified her. Her father had been a very well-respected photographic journalist and there were hundreds of people at the service. As she forced herself to look out over the audience of his colleagues and friends she lost her fear and began to tell them about his early life and what a wonderful father he had been.
The singing of the choir, eulogies praising her father’s skills, a reading of a poem prefaced by the words ‘He was a Good Man,’ washed over her and broke her.
After the service drinks were poured in the Press Club, stories were told, hugs and kisses exchanged. Helen felt that her family had expanded by about two hundred people.

‘All the way home on the train I thought of Dad and the terrible mistake I had made. I thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. Some had fixed themselves to the stars of elusive animals. Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens. Some sought wildness at a distance, others closer to home. ‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’
Now I know this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold.’

There was so much about grief and loss to relate to in this book. It was an unusual setting for a theme of this sort but the idea of fleeing to the wild or separating ourselves from human company in order to heal from a great hurt can be a powerful urge. I was struck with Helen Macdonald’s words above, ‘Hands are for other human hands to hold.’
We need each other, ‘…the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.’

H is for Hawk is a poignant reminder that life goes on in the midst of loss and that memories play an important role in recovery and growth.

‘There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.’

Update: H is for Hawk was a timely read for me. I wrote about my own experience with grief and loss here.

Linked to Book’d Out Non-fiction Challenge: Nature


22 thoughts on “Memoir: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)

  1. Super review. I have heard such good things about this book. It sounds like such a compelling story. How we handle grief is of something thaf is both important and interesting. The passages that you quoted are excellent.


  2. I have seen this cover all over, for years, and now I'm glad I stopped to find out what it was all about. I would love to read this. Sounds like it may have been a blessing at this time for you.


  3. Thank you for such a thoughtful post Carol. I needed to read this today – the bit about hands are for holding on in particular. I’m sorry for you loss. I hope that books like this help you find some solace.


  4. I think I already said it, but I'll say it again that I am praying for your strength and comfort amidst the loss of your mother. I know my day is coming with my mother, but for now, I just call her every day.I read this book but did not enjoy it. I guess I just couldn't get into the details of her training the hawk and it also disturbed me when she described the bird getting anxious, not knowing what she wanted.I'm too sensitive towards children and animals. I guess.


  5. Pingback: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (2020) | journey & destination

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