I bought a copy of this book a few years ago as a gift for my partner while I was on holidays in England. The cover is really striking, and being about falconry I thought my partner would really enjoy it. After he read it, I asked him what he thought. He agreed it was partly about falconry, but it seemed to also have a lot to do with the author’s own mental state. He thought maybe I might get a bit more out of it, but it sat on my bookshelf for absolute ages before I got a chance to get around to it.
“H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald is a non-fiction book about falconry. In her grief after her father’s sudden death, Macdonald rekindles an old hobby and buys herself a young goshawk. Part memoir, part biography, Macdonald juxtaposes her own experiences training a goshawk against those of English author T H White, whose own attempts over 60 years earlier were ultimately disastrous.
Macdonald is a wonderful nature writer who excels in finding beauty in the minutiae of the English countryside. Her depiction of the raw vigour of a bird of prey on the hunt throws Macdonald’s sorrow in stark relief. Macdonald marries the intensely personal with crisp academia and the result is an incredibly rich book.
One thing I found particularly interesting was the history of falconry. Macdonald explains that for centuries, the study of training birds of prey has relied completely on building trust and positive reinforcement. It’s amazing to me that this kind of thinking has only crossed over to the training of other animals such as dogs and horses in the past few decades. People still talk about “breaking” horses. This year I enrolled my dog into (desperately needed) obedience classes, and my local dog club is trialing new techniques with a very heavy focus on positive reinforcement. I really enjoyed drawing parallels between Macdonald’s work with her hawk and my work with my dog. The other thing I found really interesting is Macdonald’s quiet subversion as a female austringer in what was typically very much a man’s sport.
I could go on, but this is a fascinating, challenging and deeply personal read and I walked away from this book much more knowledgeable about goshawks, English literature and mental health.