Unstill Life

English nature writing has never been all that natural. While their American counterparts tend to imagine natural landscapes as “the last remaining place where civilization … has not fully infected ...

English nature writing has never been all that natural. While their American counterparts tend to imagine natural landscapes as “the last remaining place where civilization … has not fully infected the earth,” English nature writers have more often embraced a pastoral sense of human continuity with a landscape that has been modified and cultivated for centuries.1 The 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White, often hailed as a father of English ecology, wrote his famous Natural History of Selborne by meticulously and systematically recording his observations of the flora and fauna on his estate over several decades. His method of description, emulated by the many English nature writers he influenced, depended on both a keen attentiveness to visual and aural detail and a stable, leisurely sense of familiarity with the place being described.

In her new memoir, H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald revitalizes English nature writing by ditching the comfort that comes with such belonging. Chronicling the author’s effort to cope with the sudden death of her father by purchasing and training a northern goshawk named Mabel, the account begins in a state of extreme emotional disorientation. But instead of restoring tranquility, Macdonald’s decision replaces one kind of chaos with another, filling the disturbing absence of a parent with the equally disturbing presence of a creature whose demands she struggles to grasp, much less meet. The precariousness of Macdonald’s relationship with the hawk spills over into the English landscapes they wander together and results in a nature writing pervaded by uneasiness and anxiety, even as it gleams with lively perception.

The strangeness of falconry as an undertaking contributes to this unsettling effect. Never fully domesticated, but not free, either, Mabel is halfway between pet and wild animal. Macdonald excels at capturing the unscripted vertigo of her interactions with the bird. For the first third of the book, the untamed hawk is tied to a perch in Macdonald’s shabby living room, the author sitting on the couch for days on end to accustom the bird to her presence. “The first few days with a wild new hawk are a delicate, reflexive dance of manners,” she writes; “You must read the hawk’s state of mind … by watching her posture and her feathers, the workings of which turn the bird’s shape into an exquisitely controlled barometer of mood.” The exhausting process of learning to read this feathered barometer crackles with suspense under Macdonald’s pen, as the reader is taught to interpret the terrified, volatile bird at the same uncertain, trial-and-error pace that Macdonald herself does.

In one of the most arresting passages in The Natural History of Selborne, White observes that “a good ornithologist should be able to distinguish birds by their air as well as by their colours and shape.” He vividly catalogs the “airs” of the birds on his property: rooks “sometimes dive and tumble in a frolicsome manner”; herons “seem encumbered with too much sail for their light bodies”; the kingfisher “darts along like an arrow”; owls “move in a buoyant manner, as if lighter than the air”; and magpies and jays “flutter with powerless wings, and make no dispatch.”2

If the “air” of a goshawk has ever been set down in writing, it is in Macdonald’s energetic and startling sentences. The description of her first encounter with Mabel eschews still life for motion capture, unfolding in a dazzled and disoriented prose that pants to keep up with its ever-moving object:

The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the front pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs, and light-splashed feathers.

Even at the level of the sentence fragment, Macdonald shuttles from the literal precision of nature writing to fanciful metaphor and back again.

As hawk and human venture outdoors on hunting excursions, the memoir’s scope expands to include the author’s experience of the English countryside. Mabel throws Macdonald into a tense, off-kilter relationship with the landscapes they traverse, far different from the stable position of genteel ownership that writers like White occupied. Unlike the peregrine falcon, a species historically favored by landowning nobility because it requires large territories for hunting, the goshawk is a scrappier bird that can be flown, we are told, “almost anywhere … their hunting style is a quick dash from the fist after prey at close range.” Mabel’s disregard for the boundaries of property occasionally puts Macdonald in the uncomfortable position of poacher or trespasser. Lurching across the pristinely manicured grounds of private schools, scrambling to keep the hawk from destroying a flock of pheasants that belongs to a neighboring farm, Macdonald navigates the English landscape in constant and often comic distress, hawk and surroundings just beyond her control.

Macdonald’s descriptions of classically English landscapes pivot between affectionate attachment and deep unease about the unpalatable histories of such attachments. In one unexpectedly harrowing scene, Macdonald takes a walk with Mabel across southern England’s mythic chalk downs. As she revels in their stark, windswept beauty, Macdonald encounters an elderly couple likewise taking in the scenery, and the three pause to share their appreciation. The moment is abruptly shattered when the man remarks, “Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite the immigrants coming in?” Repelled, but also feeling an unwanted complicity in such attitudes through her admiration of the landscapes that engender them, Macdonald aches for a language that could pry landscape apart from identity while still registering its unique value. “I wish that we would not fight for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are. I wish we would fight, instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness,” she writes. But she worries that maintaining such a distinction is not easy, and that by using Mabel to salve her grief, she is also guilty of trying to “escape history by running to the hawk.”

Guilt floats freely throughout the book, skewing the connection between human and nonhuman in multiple ways. Guilt grips Macdonald at Mabel’s first kill, with the visceral knowledge that she has adopted a creature whose vibrant life depends on violent death. It seizes her when her inexperience as a falconer makes the hawk suffer through over- or underfeeding. Most of all, though, Macdonald worries that the solace she finds in the nonhuman world is a reprehensible withdrawal from the human one. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she recalls ruefully, and later hopes that perhaps “you feel more human once you have known … what it is like to be not.” Although H Is for Hawk has no explicit environmental agenda, its nuanced depiction of the guilt and pleasure that attend human interactions with the natural world is keenly attuned to our own ecological moment, when a vague sense of guilt is often attached to the very fact of being human, and, conversely, when seeking personal enjoyment in a romanticized nature can feel like a cop-out from the urgent human problems posed by dwindling natural resources. In H Is for Hawk, Macdonald neither reconciles guilt with pleasure, nor chooses one over the other; instead, she vividly shows how the two can uncomfortably coexist. icon

  1. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History, vol. 1, no. 1 (1996), p. 7.
  2. Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (1789; Penguin, 1987), pp. 213–14.
Featured image: Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant (1939). Source: Rennies Seaside Modern