Photo caption: Amanda Feilding and Birdie

Propeller‘s crew is responsible for introducing me to Helen MacDonald‘s H is for Hawk. When we started working together they’d frequently talk about the book and stress out how I would love it. I never doubted I would, but kept wondering what associations led them all to feel so sure about that. I finally bought the book some months after those conversations began and there have been many attempts to read it since then. I think some recent experiences with death made it quite difficult to read, but I was finally able to work through the tears that kept coming during the firs two chapters.

So H for Hawk is a brilliant autobiographical book about connections and what they entail. At first glance, it is a book about falconry, written by someone who’s grieving. On a deeper level, H is for Hawk may also be about the battle to feel at home in this world. What are we willing to do in order to connect? How far are we willing to go in order to survive? The main subject might well be the death of the author’s father, but a series of parallel themes fill the pages, namely MacDonald’s enthusiasm for everything related to goshawks, her sudden madness or her father’s work as a photographer. I’d say most of the book dwells on the issue of cruelty, either in relation to human suffering (for example her own, after her father had passed away) or the suffering inflicted on wild birds, while humans try to train them (starving them, depriving them of sleep, hooding them, etc.).

I’m fascinated by the circumstances that lead someone to think he/she is “worthy” of living with wild animals. I’d usually also wonder about the birds’ motives to stay close to humans and food sounded like a poor answer. After all, I had the idea that birds in general and birds of prey, in particular, have little trouble hunting for food. So these questions were partly answered while reading this book: yes, having a bird is a whim and making him/her stick around might evolve a series of semi to extremely cruel activities. But that’s not the entire story. 

It was the Tragedy paper that led me to read Freud, because he was still fashionable back then, and because psychoanalysts had their shot at explaining tragedy too. And after reading him I began to see all sorts of psychological transferences in my falconry books. I saw those nineteenth-century falconers were projecting onto their hawks all the male qualities they thought threatened by modern life: wildness, power, virility, independence and strength. By identifying with their hawks as they trained them, they could introject, or repossess, those qualities. At the same time they could exercise their power by ‘civilising’ a wild and primitive creature. Masculinity and conquest: two imperial myths for the price of one. The Victorian falconer assumed the power and strength of the hawk. The hawk assumed the manners of the man.
Helen MacDonald in H is for Hawk (chapter 8)

 

A family photograph of the writer with house sparrows in 1979. source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/18/learning/what-have-you-learned-from-animals.html
Helen MacDonald with Mable, wearing a hood.

Although the reader is likely to associate some of the activities involved in taming a goshawk with tortures inflicted on humans (I know I did), the author herself voices her inner battles, even referencing Abu Grahib before putting the hood on the bird and crying herself to sleep. MacDonald keeps projecting herself on a baby female goshawk, Mabel, that she buys after her father’s passing. She breaks-away from her usual doings, isolates herself and dedicates all her time and patience to the bird in order to forget her human condition (and thus her suffering). That process of transference exposes a human battle between fleeing and fighting. Helen names hers and Mabel’s fears, but she’s extremely courageous. In Mable’s companion, Helen starts to (re)gain a sense of Self.

I look at Mabel. She looks at me. So much of what she means is made of people. For thousands of years hawks like her have been caught and trapped and brought into people’s houses. But unlike other animals that have lived in such close proximity to man, they have never been domesticated. It’s made them a powerful symbol of wildness in myriad cultures, and a symbol, too, of things that need to be mastered and tamed. 
Helen MacDonald in H is for Hawk (chapter 12)

I’ve been going through lots of photographs of birds for the past weeks and I can confirm my suspicions: photographs of birds going about their lives, in their natural habitats, taken with humongous telephotos, are uninteresting to me. These, these or these photographs make little sense. We see the birds’ colors, the shapes of their feathers, how beautiful, how weird, how amazing, how bright, how aggressive, how big or how small they are, but those photographs fail to address the gap that exists between earthlings and these amazing flying creatures. Just today, while hiking in the sierras I got to see a marvelous bird of prey flying not far from us. I always stare and stop dazzled, and usually photograph the skies.

 

Amanda Feilding with Birdie, a pigeon that lived with her for 15 years.

Recently I’ve come across an interview with Amanda Feilding and found myself wondering if empathy is really enough to influence an animal’s choice to stay, instead of moving on. Feilding says it’s about love. She petted a pigeon for 15 years, nursed him back to health when we was a baby and named him Birdie. As she remarks, “he was never in a cage and lived freely wherever I was, in the house or outside. Our relationship was so close, we had several indisputable telepathic communications.” 

Although I don’t really understand the desire to “have” a bird, these women fascinate me. The ability to fly seems to endow birds with a quality of the spiritual order. Somehow I relate better to paintings or illustrations, whether they’re done with a coarse stroke or they simulate the idea of scientific drawings. Somehow I find it easier to project my idea of birds onto those representations. 

 

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