“Hunting with a hawk took me to the very edge of being human”, Macdonald confides at the start of chapter 21, entitled “Fear”. Going on to describe how she felt impelled to get to the site of the kill as quickly as possible because she knew that the death brought about by the Goshawk was a slow piecemeal affair – the prey would die incrementally as the hawk fed on it. Once there she would despatch the poor creature – usually a rabbit – and the hawk would carry on eating regardless. “Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.”
This is a brilliant, visceral book about a woman’s attempts to train – not tame- a Goshawk: in falconry legend, the most difficult hawk to train. She has experience of training other hawks and falcons which she draws on time and again, but this appears to have been of a different magnitude.
In the book, as well as taking the reader through her training of Mabel, the hawk, there are also meditations on the recent death of her father and her tribulations in deciding on the eulogy she is asked to deliver; her troubled mental health; the gendered history of falconry, and the possibility that a good percentage of falconers through history may have been gay but unable to ‘speak the name’; which links to the biggest parallel theme of the book, which is that of the life of the author T H White most famous for The Sword in the Stone, but who also wrote a book on his attempt to train a Goshawk, which failed. MacDonald’s book might be described as haunted by the ghost of White and his trials.
One of the interesting things she describes herself as realising is that the description of the difficulties in training a Goshawk – erratic, stubborn, quixotic – all come from men who’s method of training was to break the hawk’s will, to dominate it. After some early failures she begins to wonder if, as a female training a female hawk, she shouldn’t take a more nurturing approach; seeing it more as a collaboration with a view to reaching a shared goal, than a battle. She is soon rewarded with a Goshawk that will sit with her, that will play simple games and ultimately when out on the hunt will be far more likely to return willingly to the hand.
Another enjoyable aspect of the book, purely as literature is the language, and there are two strands to this. Firstly, MacDonald is a fine writer, with a talent for a lovely and apt choice of words – “Looking for Goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often and you don’t get to say when or how.” – the descriptions of landscape, weather and nature are vivid and first rate.
The other side of the language is the introduction of loads of falconry terms that are new to me and seem archaic: ‘sails’ are wings; ‘pounces’, claws; ‘train’, tail; ‘tiercel’, the male hawk – they are a third smaller; ‘creance’, the training line or tether; ‘mute’, defecate; ‘rouse’, shaking themselves. This list is probably endless.
While this clearly is a book about a woman training a Goshawk, it is also about a whole lot more…there’s even a brief consideration of Nazi Germany in relation falconry as a kind of desired historic trait – not that there was apparently much falconry there but it was deemed ‘manly’, ‘Ayrian’. Which is odd given that it was acknowledged for many centuries, that the foremost practitioners of falconry were Arabic or Middle Eastern.
This is a fine book. And even though I read it in July, I’d recommend it as a winter, fireside read, with a glass in the other hand.