A few years ago, I was reading a book in which the author related a story about a friend of his, a dog owner, who had told him she was glad dogs could have neither thoughts nor feelings as she understood them. Such incomprehensible dogs could not comprehend her. They had no demands to place on her and could not judge her failures, so she could relax around them, something she could not do around people. What mattered was not what the dogs were, but what she needed them to be.
Animals are burdened with a whole host of meanings. They carry so much, both in the meanings they inherit and the meanings we demand from them, that to see the actual creature can be a tricky task. Such obscured vision is not the same thing as anthropomorphizing animals. Take, for instance, this passage from 1951, about a different sort of animal:
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The thing about being associated with a hawk is that one cannot be slipshod about it. No hawk can be a pet. There is no sentimentality. In a way, it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with a deadly reason and interest. One desires no transference of affection, demands no ignoble homage or gratitude. It is a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart.
Neither the dog owner nor the author of that passage is making their subject into a human; indeed, they seem proud not to be making such a mistake. Their turn from anthropomorphization comes, in part, from their distaste for people.
Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk, is billed on the inside front cover as "an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald’s struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming." This is true: Macdonald’s father does die suddenly, and shortly afterward she loses both her job and her home. On an impulse she doesn’t understand, she purchases a goshawk. Half the book is the record of her training and, eventually, hunting with the hawk. The other half is about the author of that passage quoted above—T.H. White, best known today as the author of the children’s book The Once and Future King. He attempted the same thing and eventually published a book about it himself: The Goshawk.
The surprise in H is for Hawk is that Macdonald’s bird, Mabel, doesn’t help her through her grief. This isn’t hawks-as-therapy, which you might expect going in. (I did.) Here is how Macdonald moves past the death of her father: She goes to a doctor and picks up some antidepressants. Mabel has struck her twice, and Macdonald knows that means she is letting her hawk down:
I’d been so blind, so miserable, I’d not seen my hawk was miserable too. I’d not seen her at all. I remembered the man I’d fallen for after my father died. I’d hardly known him, but it didn’t matter. I’d recruited him to serve my loss, made him everything I needed. No wonder he had run away. And now I’d made the same mistake again. I’d fled to become a hawk, but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me.
Macdonald has actually covered this territory before: Her previous book Falcon was a general survey of the meanings falcons have acquired over time. H is for Hawk shows that even a person used to analyzing these myths can still fall prey to them. It is a critique of nature writing disguised as a memoir, and an attack on those emotional burdens we place on animals even as we are pretending to understand them on their own terms. A dog is a sociable animal, and does judge its masters, and a hawk has some sharp ways of reminding you if you aren’t living up to expectations.
One can of course ignore these communications. The failure here ends with a healed Macdonald and a happy Mabel. T.H. White was not so lucky. He tortured his hawk, Gos, albeit unintentionally, paying it too much attention and too little by turns. He did not know what he was doing, but he was very miserable, and one gets the impression reading The Goshawk that he thought he could intuit what to do through his misery alone. White, who struggled both with his homosexuality and with sadistic impulses, fetishized the hawk as pure cruelty. He required more of it than it could give.
"In the end," White wrote, "one did not need European civilization, did not need power, did not need most of one’s fellow men . . . finally would not need oneself." He thinks this in a cottage where he has attempted to rid himself of all these things, while getting drunk sitting on the floor by his radio. White refers to this moment as "ultimate bliss," but no one reading it could believe him. Unfortunately for White, there is no trick to escaping the self: not through alcohol, not through hawks.
After many starts and stops with Gos, White loses the hawk in a storm. Once lost, Gos presumably dies. White gets another one, which he names Cully, and Cully does successfully kill something, which is all White really wanted: "Split [blood-lust] into its parts, and think of Lust. Real blood-lust is like that." As we learn from H is for Hawk, Cully doesn’t live long. A hawk is more than a killing machine or an escape—but you can go through several before you learn this. Macdonald plays with Mabel; they have a companionable relationship. White playing with his hawks is impossible to imagine. Most likely, he would have thought of play as too human.
H is for Hawk may be the only man-and-raptor book that wasn’t written by a misanthrope. (There’s a third entry in this category, J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which makes The Goshawk look rosy.) Macdonald is not delusional; she tries to see things as they are; she is not hiding anything. She is angry, but with the anger that belongs to deep grief. "Wish [people] would FUCK OFF AND LEAVE ME ALONE," she records in her journal. This groundedness robs the book a little of the immediacy of the memoir. If H is for Hawk is read alongside The Goshawk, it is hard to worry for Macdonald, who is plainly going to pull through. That’s not entirely a bad thing. Macdonald writes clearly about pain without glorifying it as the only truth. But it can make it hard to believe that she really thought she could escape through Mabel.
Shortly before her epiphany, there is a wonderful, bloody moment where Macdonald snaps the necks of the rabbits Mabel catches on a hunting expedition. These are mercy killings; otherwise, the rabbits will die as they are being eaten. White tries to justify his blood-lust through reference to war. Baker calls humans concerned with suffering hypocrites. Macdonald, instead of pontificating about man’s inhumanity to man, shows a little kindness to a few rabbits. She calls this choice a choice to be human, a testament to her faith in humans. Macdonald’s book is its own act of mercy—toward White. She attempts what he did so badly, as if that can set his record straight, or help the miserable man of the past. And who knows? We place as many burdens on the dead as we do on our dogs, but some conceptions of time are loose enough to allow for such a thing to happen.