Living in the inner suburbs of a city like Melbourne, sometimes it’s hard not to feel disconnected. Surrounded by trams and cars and rushing business people, the horizon obstructed by high-rise buildings, nature can feel like a distant, separate world. But between the buildings there are glimpses of sky. Since moving from the country to the city, I have found myself becoming increasingly familiar with the local birds, as some days they may be the only wildlife I encounter. The colourful flash of a rosella in a suburban street, the primeval screech of cockatoos in the park; in the unlimited sky, birds have always been perceived as a symbol of freedom.
Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is part memoir, part biography, and in whole a passionate tribute to birds: in particular, the goshawk. An academic and a falconer, Macdonald studied at Cambridge before taking on research and teaching positions there, all the while pursuing her deep devotion to birds of prey. Yet her most recent book touches only lightly on that lifelong obsession with raptors; it more so focuses on a single year in her life, when, following the death of her father, Macdonald set out to train a goshawk.
Notorious in the world of falconry for its volatile temperament and being exceedingly difficult to train, Macdonald had set herself no simple task in taking on a goshawk. As the months pass following her father’s death, she pours herself into the hawk’s training, diverting herself from her grief. Yet while her adventures with Mabel, the hawk, are both frustrating and frequently exhilarating, Macdonald withdraws further and further from the society of other people. She becomes dependent on Mabel for her happiness, which a wild animal, of course, cannot sustain.
Interspersed with the vivid accounts of these tumultuous months are episodes of another story: an unconventional biography of T.H. White, the author most famous for The Once and Future King. Macdonald focuses on a similarly intense period in White’s life during which he too undertook to train a goshawk, though many decades before. The resultant struggle is documented in his 1951 memoir, The Goshawk. Not so much a book about falconry as a deeply personal story of a man’s fight to dominate a wild creature, The Goshawk fascinated Macdonald in all its troubling honesty.
The two stories run in parallel, their paths converging and diverging throughout the book. Where White struggles to conquer Gos, Macdonald becomes wilder under Mabel’s influence. Ultimately, Macdonald must find a balance between the opposing aspects of her nature in order to move forward with her life. Her deep-seated love of the natural world is at the heart of this book, but she must accept the human, too. “You can reconcile the wild,” she says. “You can bring it home with you.”
Even at home in the city, the wild is not entirely absent. In the eastern suburbs a few weeks ago, I heard a disturbance in the usual birdsong and turned to see a wedge-tailed eagle gracefully lower its great bulk onto a gumtree branch, which sank beneath its weight. Crows flitted angrily around it like flies, but it hardly seemed to notice. Eventually, with immense wingbeats, it lifted off again. Victoria is home to dozens of raptor species, from kites to kestrels, eagles to owls. Birdlife is a part of nature that we can still regularly enjoy, relatively unobstructed as their flight paths are by human development. Of course, despite being a ground-dwelling species, humans have still managed to interfere with the inhabitants of the sky. Birds, like all Australian animals, are declining as the human world expands. Though officially listed as "secure" in Victoria, in other states the wedge-tailed eagle is endangered.
What makes Macdonald’s story so powerful is its personal account of connection to an animal. Where birds and other species are frequently discussed in terms of ever-dwindling numbers, it is personal encounters with wildlife that have the real power to create change. The curved profile of an ibis as it wings over a highway or kangaroos grazing in the neighbouring paddock in the early morning - passion for wildlife blossoms out of that thrilling moment in which you are nothing more than a member of one species among many.
Banner image courtesy of www.telegraph.co.uk