H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

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Chapters 7–8 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1064

Chapter 7: Invisibility

The next day, Macdonald awakens to the sound of a chaffinch call called a “rain call,” traditionally believed to portend bad weather. Macdonald thinks about bird calls: in the 1950s, a scientist called Thorpe experimented with finch calls. He discovered that there is a short window of time in which young birds need to learn their calls from adult birds, and if this window was missed, the finches couldn’t produce the songs accurately. This study of developmental learning was steeped in Cold War anxieties about allegiances, identity, and innate versus learned characteristics.

Macdonald remembers with a thrill that the hawk is finally here, filling her house with “wildness.” She goes to the hawk’s perch and takes her on her fist, and the hawk immediately bates. Bating is when a hawk, frightened or agitated, dives from the falconer’s fist; it is a normal behavior during the training of a hawk. Macdonald helps the bird back onto her fist. Hawks have a “flying weight,” she explains—too heavy or too light and they won’t have much interest in flying, and it is a precise science to keep a trained hawk at its flying weight.

In the hawk’s chest, Macdonald can feel a tiny heartbeat. Macdonald draws away, irrationally afraid that her attention will cause the hawk’s heart to stop. Tucking some meat into her glove beneath the hawk’s feet, Macdonald takes off the hawk’s hood for the first time. The hawk is terrified and struggles to get away; then Macdonald and the hawk look directly at each other. Macdonald then looks away. When you are training a hawk, she says, you must learn to “become invisible,” and trust can only be built through gifts of food. Macdonald first learned the trick of invisibility as a child, when she “loved to disappear.” While this habit has harmed Macdonald in her adult life, it has also proven essential when training hawks.

Alone in her house with the hawk, Macdonald acknowledges her total isolation—the curtains are drawn, and the phone is unplugged. She sits perfectly still, waiting. She can feel the hawk watching her. For the first time in months, Macdonald feels that her life has a purpose.

The next step is getting the hawk to feed: she is unlikely to for the first few days, being afraid and disoriented in a new place. As Macdonald sits with her, the hawk shakes and drops a little piece of down to the floor. Macdonald looks at it closely; the last time she studied an object with this exact kind of intensity was when she was looking at the reindeer moss the day her mother called to say her father had died. She recalls her father telling her that he got through “white-knuckle jobs” by looking through the camera lens—it stopped him from having a body, from being physically or emotionally involved in the scene.

Now that she is alone with the hawk, Macdonald finally has time and space to think about her father. How, she wonders, did he cope with difficulty? In his life, her father dealt with disappearances and losses by capturing events in photographs. Photography was her father’s way of freezing time for a moment. Macdonald remembers a time when her father told a little boy to look up at the sky to see a rare phenomenon caused by clouds and refracted sunlight, and the boy seemed uninterested in doing so; this made her father sad. Mortality is bound up with “signs and wonders that come, and go,” Macdonald thinks, and as a photographer, her father captured these fleeting moments and made them permanent.

The hawk will not eat today, Macdonald knows. She is too scared. After Macdonald puts the hood back on her, the hawk calms down. For a while, they both sleep. When they awake, the hawk is a bit less frightened of being picked up. She looks around the room, and when she turns to face Macdonald, she jumps in surprise. Macdonald revels in the hawk’s growing acceptance of her—but also in the “deeper, darker thrill” of having been momentarily forgotten.

Chapter 8: The Rembrandt Interior

White didn’t know what he was doing when he made his first attempts to fly and feed his goshawk. He saw the hunger traces in Gos’s tail feathers and feared he might make them worse, so he overfed the hawk. He didn’t know any better. Macdonald writes that as White forced rabbit upon the overfed hawk, he was saying, “Love me.” But Gos was much too full and wanted only to be left alone. A cycle of sadism, self-hate, and anger with the goshawk colored White’s first days with Gos.

White didn’t live as far from humanity as his writings suggest; in fact, his cottage was on the Stowe estate. He was drawn to falconry in part because it was such a different kind of education than the punitive model employed at Stowe. In psychoanalysis, Macdonald writes, White learned to “go back in time” in order to fix the problems in his life—because of this, perhaps he was attempting to reenact his childhood with the hawk. Both White and Macdonald read An Approved Treatise of Hawkes and Hawking, written in 1619 by “Edmund Bert, Gentleman.” White was in love with Bert, Macdonald surmises, and so he decided to train his hawk the old-fashioned way. This method involved real tests of White’s willpower, particularly because he misunderstood Bert’s instructions. He stayed awake long hours alone with the hawk, longing to prove himself by surviving an “ordeal.” Delirious, he read Gos passages from Shakespeare and played him music.

While working toward her English degree in university, Macdonald studied tragedy, which led her to read Freud. Reading Freud, in turn, led her to understand Victorian falconers’ projection of masculinity and conquest onto the figure of the hawk. White, too, projected onto his goshawk: Gos was “fey, fairy, feral, ferocious and cruel.” In his desire to tame the hawk, White revealed his desperate need to control his own “perversity.”

In the barn with Gos, White struggled to keep both himself and the hawk awake. They were both unsteady with exhaustion. Still, White knew he must not punish the goshawk, who “would rather die than submit.” All he could do was remain patient.

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Chapters 5–6 Summary


Chapters 9–10 Summary