INTO THE WILD: H IS FOR HAWK by Helen MacDonald – May 2015

Tompkins_J_LReviewed by Jane Tompkins                

Nature lovers, beware! Helen MacDonald appears to be writing a well-behaved, typically idiosyncratic, British sort of book, one that combines descriptions of landscape, literary references, and personal history with a story about the taming of an animal—in this case, a hawk. A goshawk, to be exact. I didn’t know what a goshawk was when I began reading, and though the author talks about them all the time, I’m still not sure I know what one is. This is because, as she depicts it, a goshawk is a magical, otherworldly being rather than a creature of flesh and blood. MacDonald never simply looks at the bird and describes her in a methodical way, one feature at a time.

This is fine. It was never her purpose to let us see the goshawk the way it would appear in a natural history book. Hers is a bird more like Poe’s Raven: instinct with prophecy and foreboding, in touch with powers beyond our ken. That is what makes her book memorable and worthwhile. The act of training (the proper word is “manning”) the hawk is so entwined with the author’s own psychic life that the process is as much an exercise in what therapists call acting out as it is in the taming of a wild creature.

In fact, MacDonald is telling two stories at once: her own, and that of T.H. White, who wrote The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King. He also wrote a book called The Goshawk, a harrowing account of his attempt to “man” a goshawk that made me cringe every time she started to relate it. MacDonald shows how White’s soul-maiming childhood, combined with his innate tendencies, caused him to torture both himself and the once-wild being that came into his hands—all the while intending only to love the bird who, after much too long, finally escapes. Unfortunately, since the jesses tied to the hawk’s legs would sooner or later have caught in something so that he could not get loose, he almost certainly starved to death.

Death is never far from one’s mind here. First, there’s MacDonald’s childhood experience of watching a goshawk tear a rabbit apart brutally, leaving nothing behind but a few tufts of fur—a bloody act of violence that she never forgot. Then there are the dead chicks and mice and pieces of rabbit she keeps in her freezer and feeds to her goshawk on a regular basis. Then there’s the fact that she decides to train the goshawk shortly after the sudden death of her beloved father, a newspaper photographer who taught her how to be patient, and to watch. Her relationship to the hawk is so all-absorbing it allows her to escape from her grief into the hawk’s world where killing is the whole point—wiping out the consciousness of one death by substituting a string of others. Finally, there’s her realization that White used the goshawk as a way of inflicting pain vicariously, an outlet for the sadism he could never allow himself to express directly, except, of course, in the training of his hawk. I don’t know about you, but this was dark enough for me.

The genius of the book is that it dares to look at these things. The question is, do we? Here is a woman who teaches history at Cambridge University on some kind of adjunct basis so that her income is never secure, and the rest of the time wanders the hedgerows and woodlands of England getting scratched by brambles; trudges up and down hills in all weathers, trailing after the magnificent creature she has taken to herself to partner with in the hunt. For days on end she tracks its deadly path through the countryside to pick up the remains of its prey, trying, and succeeding for a while, to cross over into non-human nature herself. “Like White,” she writes, “I wanted to cut loose from the world, and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.” I’m not sure what she means by a despair that is savage and courteous, but it has a great ring to it.

I’m re-reading the book now, discovering things I missed before—you have to stay alert. As we used to say as kids, MacDonald doesn’t sell her cabbage twice a day. Her book goes places nothing else I’ve read has ever gone. Though much of it is set in nature, its dark forest is not made of trees but is the kind that Dante meant when at the beginning of the Divine Comedy he said, Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura–I found myself in a dark wood. He continues: Oh, how to say what it was is so hard a thing, this savage wilderness, bitter and strong, that in my mind the old fear rises up.” H is for Hawk isn’t that bad, but it’s definitely an adventure. I recommend it.~