Birds of prey are mysterious. Most of us glimpse them at close quarters only occasionally. We hear the “peow-peow” of a hunting buzzard overhead and sight a pale, feathered under-carriage gliding on unseen thermals. Or the disquiet of other, smaller birds alerts us to an aerial dogfight: crows trying to mob a kestrel near their nest. If we are very lucky, or well-briefed, we may raise our binoculars to a shaking branch where an eagle with an egg-yolk yellow beak and a livid eye is perched like a vengeful angel atop a Christmas tree.
Goshawks are among the most elusive of the tribe. They like to sequester themselves in old-growth pine forests, where their gorgeous plumage—gray lines rippling through a pure white breast—is reminiscent of snow falling on pine needles. Like snow, these birds are often deadly. Using field edges and hedgerows for cover, they can stoop at up to 40 mph to punch and tear the life out of rabbits, pheasants, even bigger birds like geese, as their full name, “goose-hawk,” suggests. In the Middle Ages, they were known as “the cook’s bird” because they were so efficient at supplying game for the dinner table. They are solitary by nature. To falconers, they have a reputation for extreme difficulty—for being moody, fierce, easily spooked, and easily lost.
Helen Macdonald’s account of buying and training (“manning”) a goshawk in the wake of her father’s death offers a fascinating introduction to the art of falconry. At first, an untrained bird will “bate”—flap wildly in panic and attempt to get loose—whenever a new person approaches. Only by mastering stillness and the appearance of inattention, a kind of magical invisibility, will the falconer gradually become an accepted object in the bird’s landscape. Then the bird must learn to come and take food from the falconer’s gauntlet. On this association, between the glove and food, rests the invisible bond that will bring the bird back when it is being flown free.
Birds of prey are like boxers and jockeys: Their weight is crucial. If Macdonald’s goshawk is too “high” (heavy) by even a few ounces, she will lack sufficient incentive to return accurately to the glove. If she is too “low” (light), she may be so frustrated with hunger that she swipes at her owner’s scalp with razor-sharp talons. Manning a goshawk, we learn as the narrative progresses, is a matter not only of science but also of developed intuition based on minute observation.
As Macdonald tells us, “To train a hawk, you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods.” In the case of her hawk:
A frowning contraction of the crines around her beak and an almost imperceptible narrowing of her eyes meant something like happy; a particular, fugitive expression on her face, oddly distant and reserved, meant sleepy.
Reading this book, we learn to see the countryside in the hyper-attentive present tense that Macdonald describes as the goshawk’s fighter-pilot worldview.
But Macdonald’s memoir is unusual. It is not merely a book about birds, history, and falconry. It is, foremost, a book about the experience of deep and prolonged grief: how it “bewilders” us and estranges us from human conversation, and how we channel our loss, often in ways we do not at the time recognize.
Macdonald’s father, a well-known photojournalist, died of a sudden heart attack at 67 while on an assignment. His death left Macdonald in crisis. Seeking solace, she embarks on a posthumous argument and a quest with deep roots in her childhood: She drives to Scotland to take possession of a young goshawk, whom she names Mabel (after the Latin amabilis, meaning “lovable”). There is a tradition among falconers that a bird named Attila will never catch any prey, whereas a hawk named Tiddles will be lethal. Macdonald is terrified that she will not be able to keep Mabel alive, let alone “man” her successfully. But her experience in training other birds proves equal to the task, and Mabel surprises everyone with her tractability, eventually becoming so relaxed that she plays with her owner, catching small balls of paper in midair and batting them back.
The argument that Macdonald conducts is with T. H. White, author of The Goshawk (1951) and, more famously, a number of fictions based on Arthurian legend, including The Once and Future King (1958), which inspired the musical Camelot. In The Goshawk, White recorded his epic struggle to tame a goshawk: a battle for mastery that involved keeping the hawk (and himself) awake for days at a time, alternately feeding it and depriving it of food.