“H Is for Hawk” is Helen McDonald's memoir of the period she spent in mourning after the death of her father. The man died suddenly, without warning, and McDonald loved him unreservedly. I loved my father in a similar fashion and could sympathize with the jolt she experienced when the man whose standards had become her own was no more. When the person against whom we measure ourselves ceases to exist, how do we know who we are? How do we judge our thoughts, our actions? Why, we ask, should we even care?
Trying to answer these questions, fill up the emptiness created by her father's loss, McDonald turns to falconry, a hobby she enjoyed as a child. Of all the birds traditionally flown by falconers—Peregrines, Merlins, Kestrels, Eagles—McDonald chooses and attempts to train the wildest and most difficult of all: a Goshawk. The struggle that ensues pits a brilliant Cambridge fellow against an animal more closely related to Tyrannosaurus Rex than it is to any human. This is the yellow-eyed beast McDonald must teach—against all that nature and instinct demand of it—to do her bidding.
But teaching, of course, is a two-way street. Just as the bird must learn to trust McDonald, so McDonald must learn to trust the bird. If she is to successfully hunt with it, train it to be her working captive, she must set the Goshawk free, let it fly. She must trust this alien, entirely unknowable being to ignore its nature and return to her hand when called.
Reading this extended meditation upon what it means to be wild, what it means to be human, I was reminded again and again of Carson McCullers' wonderful title “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” For that, I believe, is what McDonald's return to falconry is really all about. The small, fierce bundle of muscle, sinew, feather, and brains that is “her” bird ... comes to represent, in fact, her heart. And over the course of this rich, rewarding book, bird and falconer must nurse that tender organ back to health.
Like all the good books I read, “H Is for Hawk” refused to remain on my bedside table when I left for work each day. Instead, as I drove toward town, its images would return to me, and I would find myself picturing McDonald as she walked over a field like those around me, all alone but for the ever-alert, semi-wild animal perched on her hand.
And then I noticed the Kestrels.
Of course they are there most days. Kestrels are North America's smallest falcon, and they are common in Talbot County at this time of year. Drive through the fields around here, keeping an eye on the power lines as you go, and sooner or later you're bound to notice a lone bird sitting by itself studying the ground before it. Nowadays, thanks to McDonald's book, whenever I sight the thin, erect, intent profile that says Kestrel, I immediately stop the car and get out my binoculars. Of course both sexes are beautiful, but the male—with his tawny back striped like a tiger's, his blue wings and red cap—is far and away the most colorful of all North American birds of prey.
And then to watch one fly! Kestrels take to the air as trout take to water, and just as a trout may stop and hover mid-stream, its senses locked upon something that's disturbed the surface of its brook, so a Kestrel will, from time to time, stop and hover mid-air, sensing movement in the field below. Then, with a flick of its wrist, the bird visibly changes its mind, dips a shoulder into the wind and, before you know it, it's in the next field over. Have you ever dreamt you were flying? Remember the ease with which you dipped and turned, the way you coursed over the landscape, master of all that you surveyed? That is the way Kestrels fly. And all of this—the cold, bracing air of the fields where I stop to observe, the severe beauty of those fields in winter, and, finally, the birds themselves—all of this was given to me by one extraordinary book, “H Is for Hawk,” and, of course, the extraordinary place where I found it: the Talbot County Free Library.