H Is for Hawk

H Is for Hawk

Book - 2014
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When Helen Macdonald's father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she'd never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk's fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White's chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself "in the hawk's wild mind to tame her" tested the limits of Macdonald's humanity and changed her life.
Publisher: New York : Grove Press, [2014]
ISBN: 9780802123411
Branch Call Number: Science & Nature 598.944 MAC


From Library Staff

jpainter Mar 30, 2015

This is a singular story, revealed in glimpses and anecdotes, as the author shares her experiences with Mabel, the young goshawk, and charts her own progress in coping with and accepting both the human and the natural world. The writing is intimate, stunning and unflinchingly honest. A brilliant ... Read More »

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May 04, 2018

Memoir of how a grief-stricken woman emerges from depression by buying and training a goshawk. Many references to another author's "how-to" train a goshawk.

ArapahoeKati Apr 30, 2018

I know nothing about hawks but I enjoyed everything I read. There's a little bit of history, literature and more. Her writing is excellent.

Although a lot of her book referee back to a past author, I felt she tied everything in nicely with just how she was dealing with things. This was he first natural history novel I read and I found I enjoyed it more than I thought... but it is heavy on psychology which may not be up some people's ailes.

Feb 16, 2018

Far too much of this book is taken up with her hostility to novelist T.H. White and his book "The Goshawk" (1951), an account of White's attempt to train a northern goshawk using traditional rather than modern falconry techniques. She even inappropriately delves into his sexuality.

Sep 08, 2017

Another book I couldn't finish. I love birds and I was hoping this book would give me insight as to why anyone would choose to forcibly hold one captive. But it didn't. Seemed to be a book mostly about a depressed crotchety lady who was obsessed with killing rodents. I didn't find this beautiful in any way. Not sure what the other readers are seeing... maybe I had to finish it.

This is like a dark Beatrix Potter book for adults. Poetic, fascinating but her grief at the death of her father borders on the pathological. I knew nothing about hunting with birds so this ensures the book is worthwhile reading. Weaving into her story the literature of T.H. White, a very damaged child who also took to falconry, was confusing and really darkened the whole mood of the book, perhaps deliberately.

Feb 06, 2017

And T is for Tedious. Maybe she should have gotten a dog, then it would only have been a facebook post instead of an entire book.

Jan 19, 2017

Beautiful writings on nature, hawk, falconry and spiritual living, held my attention. Grief is deep, but her personal story and introspective sound distant to me. I mesmerized in dreaming my pet goshawk, wanted (and later not) to read TH White. There wasn't much progression of my comprehension and discovery. Some statements and insights were made and even repeated, but appear contrived from her experience of hawk training (patient) and its correlation with White's journey (mystic).

I appreciate the primordial and ephemeral, hold doubts on didactic and implicit.

Jan 02, 2017

I’m not quite sure how Helen Macdonald managed to interweave a detailed and rather technical book about training a goshawk with a clear-eyed description of a profound grief that almost tipped into madness. But manage it she does, educating millions of readers about the minutiae of falconry along the way, and I found myself missing the narrator and her storytelling when I finally finished the book.

The narrative pull of this book is watching Macdonald gradually find her way out of grief. It’s a beautifully written book, sharply descriptive of Mabel the goshawk, clinical in the author’s own observation of herself and her grief, and poetic in its descriptions of landscape. No wonder it won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2014.

For my complete review of this book, see

Nov 06, 2016

I found this book difficult to read because so much of it it outside my realm of experience, but that is also what made it so interesting to read. There are threads in the memoir - the grief and memories of the author's father; the challenges of training a goshawk; the painful story of TH White about his attempt to train a goshawk and the brutality of his life. The connections do not always make sense to me, but they are intriguing and thoughtful. I am left with a sense of what it is to have a relationship with the wilderness - how the wilderness has its own life and reality and my presence or absence is irrelevant. What a gift to connect with the wild, which is also my heritage - and the sorrow that so much of the "ecology" of the wild is being pieced out for the comfort of the human race.

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Jan 30, 2016

‘How you can talk of love for a bird after subjecting our wonderful predatory birds to such torture is beyond a normal mind,’ the letter ran. ‘Is there not enough cruelty in the world without adding to it for one’s amusement or hobby?’

I look down at my hands. There are scars on them now. Thin white lines. One is from her talons when she’d been fractious with hunger; it feels like a warning made flesh. Another is a blackthorn rip from the time I’d pushed through a hedge to find the hawk I’d thought I’d lost. And there were other scars, too, but they were not visible. They were the ones she’d helped mend, not make.

Jan 30, 2016

Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. 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.

Jan 30, 2016

I think of all the complicated histories that landscapes have, and how easy it is to wipe them away, put easier, safer histories in their place. They are only safe for us. ... There are few plants other than crops, and few bees, or butterflies, for the soil is dressed and sprayed with chemicals that kill. Ten years ago there were turtle doves on this land. Thirty years ago there were corn buntings and enormous flocks of lapwings. Seventy years ago there were red-backed shrikes, wrynecks and snipe. Two hundred years ago, ravens and black grouse. All of them are gone.

Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard.

Jan 30, 2016

Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.

From her sunlit perch she descends to the hand I hold out in the shade of a hedge and I feel a surge of indescribable relief. I start shivering, cold and hot all at once.

In the imagination, everything can be restored, everything mended, wounds healed, stories ended.

White gives himself a new pupil to train: not a hawk, but the boy who will be king.

…you can reconcile the wild. You can bring it home with you.

‘A herd of deer,’ he says, beaming, then his expression folds into something I don’t recognise. ‘Doesn’t it gives you hope?’ he says suddenly. ‘Hope?’ ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in?’ I don’t know what to say…

Jan 30, 2016

The falconer and scientist Professor Tom Cade once described falconry as a kind of ‘high-intensity birdwatching’.

The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.

I’d 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.

Jan 30, 2016

‘What am I searching for?’ ‘That you will only know when you find it.’ ‘Is it wisdom or manhood?’ ‘Perhaps it is love.’

...light. I closed my eyes against the glare and remembered the spider silk. I had walked all over it and had not seen it. I had not known it was there. It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.

Trained hawks didn’t catch animals. They caught quarry. They caught game.

I feel like White: a tyro, a fool, a beginner. An idiot.

Jan 30, 2016

I found there were myriad definitions of this thing called tragedy that had wormed its way through the history of literature; and the simplest of all was this: that it is the story of a figure who, through some moral flaw or personal failing, falls through force of circumstance to his doom.

I saw those nineteenth-century falconers were projecting onto their hawks all the male qualities they thought threatened by modern life, wildness, power, virility, independence and strength.

I look again she seems neither bird nor reptile, but a creature shaped by a million years of evolution for a life she’s not yet lived.

The tiny, hair-like feathers between her beak and eye – crines – are for catching blood so that it will dry, and flak…

He walks around the chapel, imaging the earth beneath him turning and muttering ad it senses the familiar hawk above, as the bones of farm labourers mutter when agricultural machinery passes over their forgotten tombs.

Jan 30, 2016

All these things had happened and my father had committed them to a memory that wasn’t just his own, but the world’s. My father’s life wasn’t about disappearance. His was a life that worked against it.

Henri Cartier-Bresson called the taking of a good photograph a decisive moment. ‘Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to clic the camera, he said. ‘The Moment!

The sparrow is caught mid-hop at exactly at the moment it takes the crumb from his fingers. And the expression on the man’s face is suffused with joy. He is wearing the face of an angel.

Both of us needed a break. I popped the hood back over her head. There. Fleeting panic, nerves afire, and then she relaxed because the day had turned to night and I had disappeared. The terror had gone. Hoodwinked.

Jan 30, 2016

In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the females so they are called tiercels, from …

For the boy, the string was a kind of wordless communication, a symbolic means of joining. It was a denial of separation. Holding tight.

…more expert you were, the less likely you were to call anything by its proper name.

Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and the react to stimuli literally without thinking.

After losing one’s father isn’t just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.

Putting a lens between himself and the world was a defence against more than physical danger: it shielded him from other things he had to photograph: awful things, tragic things: accidents, train crashes, the aftermath of city bombs. He’d worried…

Jan 30, 2016

…can’t help but think of a line written by the poet Marianne Moore: The cure for loneliness is solitude. And the solitude of the pilot in the spy-plane, seeing everything, touching nothing, reading The Once and Future King fifty thousand feet above…

He wonders if this is the most important book he’s ever written. Not because it will make his fortune. But because it will save him.

‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside.’ He could not imagine a human love returned. He had to displace his desires onto the landscape, that great, blank green field that cannot love you back, but cannot…

Feral. He wanted to be free. He wanted to be ferocious. He wanted to be fey, a fairy, ferox. All those elements of himself he’d pushed away, his sexuality, his desire for cruelty, for mastery: all these were suddenly there in the figure of the hawk.

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ArapahoeSusanW Jul 18, 2017

Fascinating if a wee bit tedious story of a woman's efforts to train a challenging Goshawk with literary reference to TH White as well.

Jan 30, 2016

A glowing review and interview:



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