“What would you say if I got a falcon?” The words bleeped within the blackness of my phone screen. It was my boyfriend, the Mainer.
I looked at the words. Considered the question. I began to picture him in the recess of woods behind his coastal home, his arm raised and his bearded chin lifted to the trees around him, and a hawk at his wrist. I responded, “Yeah, go for it,” and put my phone down. Moved on.
He quickly replied, “Really??” To which I wrote, “Yeah. Sounds like a good idea.”
“Wow! Cool!” he typed back. Best girlfriend award? Check. But I actually meant what I said. Inside myself I truly wished he would go for it—immerse himself into the world of animal-human relationship, get intimate with something in a way that might change him forever. Because owning a hawk, I thought, was damn serious stuff. And perhaps, idealistically, I imagined he’d actually do it. Granted, I didn’t really know what falconry entailed.
Published in the UK in 2014, H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald quickly became a New York Times bestseller. The book is a memoir about Macdonald’s experience training a goshawk. But more than that, it’s about her experience with death: after the passing of her father, Macdonald finds herself stumbling to understand herself, what to do and how to live. “I don’t recommend that people go and train goshawks as a way of managing grief,” Macdonald said in a September 7, 2014, interview with Cambridge News. “I trained the hawk because I didn’t want to be me anymore. I wanted to stop being a human because humans feel deep grief…I wanted to fly away from that and become something else.”
A good bit of the narrative reveals Helen alone in her own living room, sitting on her sofa, watching and studying and yearning to make this vital link with her hawk. At other times she’s reflecting on who her father was and what he meant to her. And then in other pages, the reader learns about T. H. White, a man who attempted to tame hawks but ultimately failed.
The strength of the book is in Macdonald’s close look at her feelings, emotions, inclinations. As a reader, I wanted to know what mattered, really, to this seemingly brave woman. What revelations did she come to? (She comes to them, in the end). And I sympathized with her. Because I, too, like to run from things—run from God, from people, from life. I isolate myself.
In training her goshawk, Macdonald learns to “care less about her surroundings,” but then, within that void of isolation, she realizes the need to come back to society, to humanity, and live again. “I love Mabel, but what passes between us is not human,” she writes. In a similar way, I know God wants me to be in tune with him. To be attentive to him like Macdonald is to the hawk. But God is not animal. God is not nature. God made himself accessible by becoming human, in Jesus.
I like to think God wants me to live deep within nature. On this island, by this coast. But maybe caring “less about (my) surroundings” means caring less about being close to God in nature, and loving and being loved by people.