H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

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Chapters 21–22 Summary

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Chapter 21: Fear

Although Macdonald hates killing things, she understands the hunt when she is out with Mabel. Like the hawk, she senses the life around her and enters a “hawkish” state of consciousness, focused solely on the present moment: “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human.” After Mabel snatches a rabbit, Macdonald takes the time to break its neck, to be sure it is dead; otherwise, the goshawk might begin eating the still-living prey. This act of compassion brings Macdonald back to her human self. In watching the animal die—in helping it to die swiftly and painlessly—Macdonald senses the deep sadness of all death and, at the same time, feels deep pride in Mabel. She also senses her own mortality and her responsibility to the larger world. In order to hunt with the hawk, she says, “You have to harden your heart”—not so that you stop caring, but so that you are able to do what is necessary.

Macdonald describes “mercy-killing” a rabbit sick with myxomatosis that other people were afraid to touch. It reminds her of her own childhood, when the countryside was in an agricultural crisis due to harmful pesticides. As a child, Macdonald was terrified of the possibility of nuclear fallout.

Macdonald writes that “the archaeology of grief is not ordered,” meaning that memories and sensations after a death are not chronological but instead appear when one isn’t expecting them. At her friend’s house, she finds a copy of J. A. Baker’s book The Peregrine and begins to reread it. Baker, says Macdonald, is obsessed with death and extinction, and he used falcons as their symbols. There is none of Baker’s hopelessness in The Goshawk: White clung hard to life and hope, and “loved the small things of the world.”

A few years ago, Macdonald recalls, she visited her friend Gordon, who was at that time the president of the British Falconers’ Club. Gordon was in possession of a remnant of Nazi Germany: a bronze falcon statuette awarded to the British Falconers’ Club for their participation in the Third Reich’s 1937 falconry exposition. The statuette horrified them both—it was beautiful, but what it stood for was ugly. In the powerful, predatory figure of the hawk, the Nazis found the “perfect naturalisation” of their ideology. The Nazi patronage of falconry was arranged by a man named Renz Waller, the same falconer from whom White had bought Gos—and the same falconer White wrote to, begging for another hawk, after Gos flew away.

Waller eventually offered to send White a new hawk, but before it could happen, White came down with appendicitis. Surviving this ordeal made him feel brave. After he went home from the hospital, he flirted with the woman who had been his nurse but ultimately rejected her. That spring, White bought a new hawk and named her Cully. She was bedraggled, but eventually he flew her free and helped her kill a rabbit. Afterward, he wrote of the “blood-lust” he had felt in that moment—an unleashing of the desires he normally tried so hard to suppress.

Chapter 22: Apple Day

Stuart invites Macdonald and Mabel to a country fair. People will be showing their hawks there; Macdonald is worried about how Mabel will react but decides to go. At the fair, Mabel appears small next to all the other birds of prey. Macdonald wanders around the fair and finds herself delighting in all the different sights, and she and Mabel both relax. Chatting with the other falconers, she thinks about how much the culture has changed:...

(This entire section contains 939 words.)

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this hobby no longer belongs solely to aristocratic men. A man and his child take an interest in Mabel, and in talking to them, Macdonald feels a surge of loneliness and isolation—she has “No father, no partner, no child, no job, no home.”

Later, Macdonald comes down with a bad migraine but feels obligated to take Mabel out flying anyway. The hawk begins to hunt, and Macdonald watches in amazement, feeling her migraine disappear; she thinks about the “conversation of death” (a phrase coined by Barry Lopez) happening between predator and prey as they become aware of each other. Mabel swoops upon a rabbit that tries to escape down a hole in the ground, and Macdonald helps her pull the rabbit out.

One day Mabel suddenly grabs Macdonald’s arm in her talons and draws blood, apparently without provocation. Macdonald reflects on how anxious and pain-prone she has become, and how understanding grief and loss through psychoanalytic theories has little to do with her life with the hawk. To understand her experience, she finds it more helpful to turn to the writings of the anthropologist Rane Willerslev, who documented the experiences of Yukaghir hunters who believed they had risked transforming into their quarry. “Turning into an animal can imperil the human soul,” she says. Macdonald acknowledges that in hunting with Mabel these past weeks, she has become increasingly hawklike herself, withdrawing from the human world and coming dangerously close to losing her human identity. Mabel has also been more aggressive lately, and Macdonald is unsure why; she worries that it is something she has done to upset the bond between them.

Two days before her father’s memorial service, Mabel accidentally slashes Macdonald across the face with her talons during a hunt. Though blood is running down her forehead and into her eyes, Macdonald decides to stay out on the hill and continue flying Mabel. It is a strange and exhilarating feeling. When they arrive home, Macdonald finally writes her father’s eulogy.


Chapters 19–20 Summary


Chapters 23–24 Summary