H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

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Chapters 19–20 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

Chapter 19: Extinction

When a hawk is in the mood to kill, falconers say the hawk is in yarak. Macdonald has mixed feelings as Mabel comes into yarak; it disturbs her to watch her hawk become obsessed with the kill, but she also wants Mabel to successfully catch something during their hunts. The hawk is amazing to watch at work, and Macdonald feels like she’s only slowing her down.

After a frustrating day on the hill with Stuart, Mandy, and their dogs—who annoyed both Mabel and Macdonald—Macdonald has to dress nicely to go to an art gallery for an exhibition opening. She is exhausted, but she has no choice but to attend the event; in a few weeks, she is supposed to give a talk about the exhibition. When she arrives, she is surprised to see a full-sized wooden bird hide and, projected on the window inside, a video of a California condor in flight. Macdonald reflects on the condor conservation efforts of the 1980s and the meanings people give to animals: today, the condor has become more a symbol of extinction than a real bird. Viewing a bird from afar, on a screen, is incalculably different from the reality of living and hunting with one.

The next exhibit is a Spix’s macaw, long dead, lying in a box. Spix’s macaws are extinct in the wild; the few remaining members of the species are bred in captivity. The sight of the parrot reminds Macdonald of seeing her father’s body in the hospital: when she first saw him, he didn’t seem real—until she saw the cut on his arm she remembered him having just before he died. Crying, Macdonald spoke to her father about things of “clear and burning importance,” told him that she loved and missed him, and finally said goodbye after realizing she had been waiting for him to answer.

Mabel “discovers what she is for” the next day on the hill: she catches a pheasant. Macdonald feels tremendous pride and amazement, the pride of a parent for a child. She helps pluck the pheasant while Mabel eats and finds herself crying: for the two birds, for her father, and for her child self.

Chapter 20: Hiding

White continued to hope in vain for Gos’s return. He scattered traps across the surrounding countryside without success and eventually attempted to send for a new hawk from Germany, but the breeder never replied.

Macdonald’s job has ended, and it is time for her to move. Some friends lend her their house while they are traveling for several months. It is a family home, full of toys and children’s drawings, and this makes Macdonald feel awkward and alone. Suspecting that the house itself does not “want” her, she spends long hours outdoors with Mabel, avoiding the house as much as possible. When she calls her mother, it’s uncomfortable; Macdonald feels numbed to her mother’s pain and to her own. Macdonald has agreed to give a eulogy at her father’s memorial, but she struggles to write it, uncertain where to begin.

Macdonald takes Mabel to a field outside of town, where Mabel kills a rabbit. Macdonald is fascinated by watching the hawk eat her prey and meditates on the “great mystery” of life and death: the rabbit was alive just a few moments ago, and now it is dead, still warm, bloody. Overhead, a World War II bomber plane flies by, and to Macdonald’s surprise, Mabel doesn’t notice it. American bomber pilots were stationed nearby during the war, and Macdonald imagines their experience: “The sky was not a place of safety, no...

(This entire section contains 921 words.)

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matter how commanding their view. What happened to them was terrible. What they did was terrible beyond imagining.” Through their participation in death and killing, these airmen are connected to the hawk on Macdonald’s fist.

There is something that feels safe about being a “watcher,” Macdonald muses. She wonders if she inherited this quality from her father. He grew up during and just after World War II and was obsessed with plane-spotting, taking notes and studying the different models that flew overhead. During the war, propagandists drew similarities between birds of prey and war planes to make war itself seem like the natural order of things. The medieval British glamor of falconry served as the perfect vessel for articulating ideas about war, justice, and national identity. As she listens to the bomber plane fly past the field where she sits with Mabel, Macdonald remembers one of her father’s plane-spotting stories and knows instantly that this will form the basis of her eulogy.

T. H. White had recurring nightmares of airplanes; he claimed he learned to fly in order to conquer his fear of them. In his writings about Gos, the hawk is often portrayed as a foreign enemy, a vector of violence akin to Mussolini or Hitler. White’s politics were “unfortunate,” says Macdonald—hating capitalism and disillusioned with communism, he thought he might be a fascist. In his efforts to train Gos, he was at war with the hawk, and White eventually realized that he himself, not Gos, was the dictator. As a child in St Leonards, White had visited an underground cave, a space of total darkness; this was a fond, safe memory for him, and he was comforted by it. Now, waiting for hawks, White made himself a little “grave”—a hidden shelter on the forest floor—and delighted in having become invisible.


Chapters 17–18 Summary


Chapters 21–22 Summary