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Last Updated on August 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1080

As a historian, Macdonald is concerned throughout H Is for Hawk with the intersections of natural and social histories in the English landscape. “Wildness,” Macdonald argues, does not exist in a vacuum but is in part a product of human ideas and human interaction with the land. She frequently meditates...

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As a historian, Macdonald is concerned throughout H Is for Hawk with the intersections of natural and social histories in the English landscape. “Wildness,” Macdonald argues, does not exist in a vacuum but is in part a product of human ideas and human interaction with the land. She frequently meditates upon the ways in which England’s landscape has been historically employed to promote myths of national “blood-belonging” and to maintain class distinctions. Falconry, she suggests, plays a role in these social and political projects, and she often thinks about her own place in its history. Today, falconers like Macdonald can disrupt some of these damaging narratives, paving the way for a more informed and inclusive approach to interacting with the natural world that doesn’t overlook the complex histories of England’s landscapes.

For centuries, falconry remained an exclusive pursuit of the English landed classes; its practice communicated ideas about the superiority of the aristocracy as well as of England and Englishness. These cultural ideas reinforced the nationalist and colonialist sensibilities of the British Empire, and during World War II, falconry featured in propaganda that drew on the imagery of a romanticized medieval period in order to promote the idea of an innate and essentially English sense of chivalry and honor. Macdonald also notes with horror that the Nazis employed hawks and falcons—associated with inherent power and strength—to symbolize Aryan dominance, and naturalize the violence of invasion and conquest, in the propaganda of the Third Reich. Thus the history of falconry and the relationship of birds of prey to their habitats is both a natural and a manmade history. The book suggests that to understand one, we must understand the other, acknowledging the ways in which these histories are inseparable.

Describing the way she learned about English falconry as a child, Macdonald writes:

What I was doing wasn’t just educating myself in the nuts and bolts of hawk-training: I was unconsciously soaking up the assumptions of an imperial elite. I lived in a world where English peregrines always outflew foreign hawks, whose landscapes were grouse moors and manor houses, where women didn’t exist. These men were kindred spirits. I felt I was one of them, one of the elect.

Macdonald is a woman from a working-class background, but the falconry books she read in childhood taught her the ideals of a male ruling class, imparting a sense of English nationalism that privileged the white, landed aristocracy. As a historian, Macdonald now recognizes the way the political conditions of the past influenced the development of falconry, and she hopes to divorce herself from them. Hawks and falcons are beautiful and valuable precisely because, in reality, they have nothing to do with our human ideas of power and violence.

This idea is complicated, however, because much of what naturalists understand about the wild is in some way “manmade”; it is almost impossible not to see human activity as part of the landscape. Macdonald describes deforestation through agriculture, the introduction of new animal species with colonization and trade, and the impact of hunting on various habitats over time. The wild as we understand it, she says, does not exist separately from us. Humans project their own ideas and desires onto the landscapes they see, and they also impact them physically. The landscape as humans interact with it is not a neutral space but one bound to human history, human events. By buying Mabel from a breeder, training her, and eventually letting her fly free and hunt, Macdonald illustrates this idea in action. Even though Mabel is well-trained and bonded to Macdonald, she is still a wild creature, who hunts and kills with acute skill. Her survival, however, is predicated on human intervention, as Macdonald describes the efforts in the 1970s of the British Falconer Club to reintroduce the goshawk, near extinction, to English forests.

Macdonald describes how T. H. White took Gos for long nighttime walks in the fields near his cottage in the 1930s, a period when nighttime walking tours of the countryside became a nationwide phenomenon. The purpose of these tours, which were a booming industry at the time, was for people to “reconnect” with a mystical “essential Englishness,” something many craved in the period of anxiety and uncertainty between the wars. The Old England of popular imagination—Stonehenge, King Arthur, Chaucer, and Shakespeare—could be accessed through the physical landscape. Falconry had its own role in this atmosphere, given the sport’s rich history and the ancient, even prehistoric, appearance of birds of prey. (Macdonald often looks at Mabel and is reminded of the hawk’s dinosaur ancestry.) Connecting the landscape itself to certain ideas about England and its mythic history provided solace to those who, like White, yearned to take refuge in an imagined past as the fear of war increased.

Mabel and Macdonald’s relationship reveals the limits of an understanding of the natural world based on imbuing the landscape with human meanings. Macdonald loves Mabel in part because the hawk’s world has nothing to do with human concerns. At first, this also helps Macdonald cope with her father’s death—a hawk has no room in its world for grief. Ultimately, Macdonald and Mabel exist together, but separately, and Macdonald comes to deeply appreciate this dynamic. Mabel exists as she does, a well-trained goshawk, due to human intervention, but Macdonald also recognizes that the hawk’s world extends far beyond human ideas about “wild things.” White projected roles and personalities onto Gos with abandon—comparing him to mad and martial figures from literature, history, and myth—but Macdonald rejects this way of relating to her hawk, endeavoring instead to see Mabel exactly as she is.

In a scene toward the end of H Is for Hawk, Macdonald goes to a county fair where several other falconers have brought their birds to display. As she chats with her fellow falconers, Macdonald is amazed by how much falconry has diverged from its archaic, aristocratic past. The falconers at the fair include both men and women from a diverse array of backgrounds, many of them working-class. Their relationships with their hawks are not ones of mastery and domination, but appreciation and companionship. These changes suggest that human relationships with animals and landscapes are mutable. As the world changes, so does our orientation to its wild places: the meaning of a landscape changes over time in much the same way that the land itself does.

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