h is for hawk/helen macdonald

Helen Macdonald decides to train and live with a goshawk in order to find a way beyond the crushing grief of her father’s death. More importantly, she decides to write about what happens next, and what happens next is an act of imagination so desperate for meaning, so determined to discover a new world, that it can barely contain itself. Starting with what seems like a simple logic, Macdonald soon digresses into topics both arcane and contemporary from the changing color of goshawk plumage to immigration and global warming. But it is the pursuit of her two main subjects, the goshawk-in-training and the novelist T.H. White—who as it turns out also trained goshawks—that Macdonald moves beyond what she knows into what she can only discover through writing.

Named Mabel, the goshawk represents what is wild in the world, solitary, undomesticated, non-familial, and murderously violent. More surprising is Macdonald’s description of White, detailing every mean-spirited, violent, authoritarian bone in his closet. Both of these characters exert a sometimes crushing influence on Macdonald, forcing her to question herself, her motives, her ethical nature. She survives not by a hat trick or some supreme act of self-determination, but by struggling to imagine the redemption of these two beings: Mabel through her willingness to compromise the instinctual and essential solitude at her core, and White through his own acts of imagination, novels that provided his readers with an alternative to the cruel world he inherited and could never physically leave. Eventually Macdonald finds her way out of the unforeseen narrative of her own depression, by coming to understand the supportive web of friends and family that makes her life different from both the goshawk and White.

It’s a moving story, written with an expansive and detailed understanding of the natural world and a deeply realized power of observation. But underlying and activating the satisfying beauty of Macdonald’s writing is a distinguishing desire, a wish for her characters to fulfill their lives, to find clarity and meaning in their existence. Macdonald cares about her subjects, loves them, despite their faults, as only a writer can love. The care that Macdonald takes with every word and phrase and sentence is a reflection of that love and of the compassion she brings to the act of writing. Finding compassion, not only in her father’s life, but also in those around her, whether beast or human, is Helen Macdonald’s special gift, a proclivity of her imaginative rendering of the world. This is what continues to shine, when all the details of goshawk anatomy and T.H. White’s public school environment have passed into memory, a way to represent the cruelties and sadness and unpredictability of the world as they are illuminated by the liberating forces of hope and fellowship.