Thirty Ounces of Death in a Feathered Jacket

H Is for Hawk
By Helen Macdonald
New York: Grove Press, 2014, 300 pages, $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Mary Zeiss Stange


Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

So Helen Macdonald describes the moment she first laid eyes on the young goshawk she has procured, to fly her through the misery of mourning her father’s too-sudden death. She names the bird Mabel: “From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name. There is something of the grandmother about it: antimacassars and afternoon teas.” A name, in short, conceived to embody all that, by nature, this bird is not. Among birds of prey—born killers, all—the goshawk has a reputation for being unpredictable, unruly, temperamental, hard to handle, and difficult to train. It is just the thing, then, to carry the symbolic freight of vulnerable life confronting irrational death, in a soaring, memoiristic narrative of dislocation and loss. A narrative like those constructed by Macdonald, and before her, by the British author of The Once and Future King (1958), T. H. White, whose The Goshawk (1951) has long been regarded as among the best falconry books ever written. Upon its 2014 publication in England, H Is for Hawk instantly joined that select library.

It is a daunting prospect to take on the review of a book so widely and enthusiastically reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic—one that has garnered two prestigious literary awards in the UK and is sure, deservedly, to capture more on these shores. This work—which its author describes as equal parts memoir, “shadow biography” of White, and literary reflection—is meticulously, at times magically, written. It captures a reader’s attention as adeptly, and holds it as brutally, as its central character does a rabbit she’s chased down in a field of brambles.

What more can there be to say? From a literary point of view, relatively little. But from an ethical viewpoint regarding what “blood sport” may do for and to the human spirit, quite a lot, and it is complicated. The moral problematic of the book is summed up thus, by Macdonald:

Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all. . . .I saw more than I’d ever seen. The world gathered about me. It made absolute sense. But the only things I knew were hawkish things, and the lines that drew me across the landscape were the lines that drew the hawk: hunger, desire, fascination, the need to find and fly and kill.

I approached this book as a hunter myself: a sister-spirit, I assumed, to both falconer and bird—for after all falconry is a species of hunting, and an ancient one at that. Macdonald’s sometime nemesis, sometime mentor White, who resigned his post as a school headmaster and took up falconry as an appropriately “manly” pursuit to mask his homosexuality in 1930s Britain, likened hawking to psychotherapy. It was a kind of madness that rendered him somehow, somewhat saner. Like White, Macdonald was a displaced person: “No father, no partner, no child, no job, no home [italics in the original].” I was thus intrigued by the therapeutic dimension of this accomplished falconer and naturalist’s procuring a bird as a conscious device to see her way through the agony of grieving her father’s death. And not simply any bird, but one notoriously difficult and not considered a fit bird for a woman. Like hunting more generally, falconry remains a largely male pursuit; in its highly specialized vocabulary, to train a hawk is to “man” it. Ladies, beware!

Facing the book as a sister hunter, then, I was not surprised to read Macdonald’s description of what this therapeutic process was about: “What I am going to do with the hawk. Kill things. Make death.” I was taken with her implied analogy between falconry and riflery, as on the day Mabel is poised to finally fly free, “It felt like I was holding the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle. . . .The hawk left the fist with the recoil of a .303 rifle.” But any metaphorical tie between hawking and gun-hunting begins to unravel with what comes next:

A rabbit prostrate in a pile of leaves, clutched in eight gripping talons, the hawk mantling her wings over it, tail spread, eyes burning, nape-feathers raised in a tense and feral crouch.

It is up to Macdonald to break the rabbit’s neck, otherwise Mabel will commence eating her quarry alive.

That is how goshawks kill. The borders between life and death are somewhere in the taking of their meal. I couldn’t let that suffering happen. Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.

A powerful statement, that last sentence, and essentially the book’s thesis. It is a sentiment that resonates for any hunter. We humans are the only animals who are both blessed and cursed with that certain knowledge of our place in the food chain: other beings die that we may live, and we too shall die and be consumed one way or another. Macdonald spends the next several pages rehearsing the various rationales she had to afford friends and acquaintances who expressed reactions ranging from bemusement, to outrage, to disgust, at her apparent preoccupation with killing. Significantly, their collective concern was not with Mabel’s catching rabbits or pheasants, but with Macdonald’s dispatching them, hands-on, via strangulation.

This is what falconers must do, in the name of humaneness. Yet I confess, hunter that I am, I was taken aback by my own qualms about this rabbit episode, and several others that follow in the book, culminating in a mini-orgy of carnage wrought by a self-hunting Mabel in a pen of captive-raised pheasants. Macdonald describes at great length the therapeutic value of her grisly participation in such death-dealing: “I was accountable for all these deaths. I was being accountable to myself, to the world and all things in it. But only when I killed. The days were very dark.” She acknowledges that she and Mabel subsequently fed upon at least some of the goshawk’s prey, although many kills seem also to have been left to lie in the field—an acceptable practice in England, but with rare exceptions (like the unfortunate killing of a songbird) illegal in the US. So, too, she was hunting without the constraint of the kind of bag limits imposed on falconers here. Another difference between American and British falconry is that the sport is far more highly regulated here than abroad. Indeed, Macdonald herself speculates that a model closer to the US system might be a good thing. I am sensitive to cultural and contextual differences in hunting practices around the world, so why did I feel a touch of squeamishness here?

I consulted a friend, Anne Pearse Hocker, who is an experienced falconer as well as a gun-hunter. As she phrased it,

Gun-hunting is killing from a distance, letting the gun do your distance work. In falconry you need to get up close and personal—learning to wring a rabbit’s neck efficiently is a key part of apprenticeship. Part of it is to prevent the prey animal from suffering. But it’s really about becoming part of the team.

The “team” in question is, of course, the partnership between falconer and bird. This makes excellent sense. And yet, as a hunter, I could not—cannot—entirely shake the feeling that there was something not quite right about the instrumental use to which Macdonald subjected her bird, as well as all those hapless rabbits, for the purpose of her own self-healing.

I hasten to add that I believe she would agree with me. Ethics or rightness had little to do with her mental or emotional condition throughout much of the story she tells of a year of grieving so shockingly intense that it amounted to a palpable kind of madness. At its end, coming out of what feels for much of the book like a long dark passage with occasional glimpses of hawk-generated light, it is unclear whether her lifting spirits might owe as much to the antidepressants she has begun taking as to her wild, beloved Mabel.

But Macdonald would aver that this is not the point, and here I would agree with her. If ultimately Mabel brings Macdonald home to herself, it is because the bird has taught her the limits of identification—metaphorical or literal—with nature. In the end, Mabel has become “a protecting spirit,” a “little household god.” Macdonald concludes:

In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.

That is a lot of weight—real and symbolic—for “thirty ounces of death in a feathered jacket” to bear. In Macdonald’s telling, Mabel carries it off, brilliantly.

Since the 1997 publication of her Woman the Hunter, and most recently in Hard Grass: Life on the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch (2010), Mary Zeiss Stange has written extensively about ecofeminism, hunting, and the creation of common ground between green environmentalists and hunter/conservationists. She is professor of Women’s Studies and Religion at Skidmore College.

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