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What is it like to be a goshawk?

Published on 08 March 2015
Updated on 06 December 2023

(A review of: Helen Macdonald (2014): H is for hawk. Jonathan Cape, London)

In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked the question: “What is it like to be a bat?” He argumented from principle and logic: “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience” and concluded that the minds of bat and humans are incommensurable. Raising their port glasses, other armchair philosophers concurred. Eschewing argument for experience (like her unfortunate primeval Sister Eve), Helen Macdonald wanted to feel like a goshawk. She had a splendid go at it. This book is the result.


Behind the gripping tale of her experience – a worthwhile read on its own merits – the book has a complex polyphonic structure. Her many-textured voice contrasts with that of T. H. White – he (unsuccessfully) tried his hands at goshawks). There is also the choral of “low mechanicks” – present-day falconers – for added depth, diversity, and common sense.

Woven finely into the fabric and barely visible, however, there is also a conversation with historians of science, a subject the author is connected with at Cambridge University. It may all be an illusion of mine, of course. Like Hänsel in the forest, however, I cannot truly believe that all those white little pebbles left at turning points in the narrative are happenchance. To me, this triangulated discourse adds depth to the book and makes it unique, and hopefully a classic. In the modest and subtle use of reflection rather than theory, the author reminds me of Theodor Zeldin.

A goshawk is at least as far from our imagination as a bat: it is a “wild,” and one can imagine. Yet, the author (and so have others) has managed to build a relationship that includes even play. The key to this success is set out in the title of the first chapter: Patience. The active part is an excruciating attention to all details (pg. 239) – one might say “body language” of the hawk (and the context of his flying). Each feather signals the bird’s disposition, well-being, and emotional state. The passive part is the suppression of illusions (say visions) one might carry into the relationship about how it should be construed. These visions are our lot (and curse?) as conscious beings. The author shows the ideologies set out over the centuries in falconry books. They range from “things to win, to court, to love” (pg. 112) of the Renaissance to “inexplicable sulky, flighty, hysterical” in the XIXth century (sounds familiar? It is – says the author).

“You have to be patient,” her father had said. “If you want to see something very much, you just have to be patient and wait.* The author continues: “There was no patience in my waiting, but time has passed all the same, and worked its careful magic.” (pg. 268) The need for patience comes not just from the complexity of the experience. It also arises from the insight that mind and body are one: “This sense of where the animals are is the coincidence of long experience with unconsciously noted clues.” (pg. 240) Time and again, the author’s theme is the unity of mind and body, and the error of separating conscious and rational from the unconscious, or of categorizing the reality into opposites of essence and contingent. The image of the scientist as a self-appointed Christ at the last judgment separating the good from the bad, truth from falsehood comes to mind.


The outcome? “At its heart was a willed loss of control. (…) Once the dice rolls, the hawk leaves the fist, you open yourself up to luck, and you cannot control the outcome. (…) You feel safe because you are entirely at the world’s mercy. It is a rush. You lose yourself in it. And so you run toward these little shots of fate, where the world turns.” (pg. 177) I suspect that this exhilarating loss of control is what Newton or Einstein felt, when they gave themselves up to their intuitions and into the wild hands of mathematics.

I may suggest an icon more apt, borrowed from Florence’ Palazzo Vecchio: a turtle with a sail – the sail of Machiavellian fortune? – atop its carapace, signifying both patience and movement:


There is nothing spiritual or transcendental in the author’s stance – on the contrary. Materiality is her whole world: “There is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our views of the world.” (pg. 275) and: “The only thing that mattered were the next thirty seconds.” (pg. 195) She fully accepts, however, that we are all drifting in Heraclitus’ river. We have little knowledge of the undertows; in the end we can only tell tales, not theories, let alone make predictions.

The author weaves into the story her emotional state after the sudden loss of her beloved father. She contrasts here state with the urges and repressions that characterized T. H. White’s stance to goshawks. Again, this juxtaposition is not innocent in my view. Far from exploring knowledge with a blank mind, the author seems to be saying, our personal and social context shapes what we see. The “adjacent possible” is always deeply subjective. We all go out into the desert with our personal and scientific toupees at the outset. Patience strips us of the comforting and sustaining emotions until we can see through a looking glass, darkly.

“It takes a long time to be yourself in the presence of a new hawk. (…) Watching, not doing. Seeking safety in not being seen. It is a habit you can fall into, willing yourself into invisibility.” (pg. 68) Invisibility – as an acknowledgment of complementarity rather than categorical otherness. The result is a “balancing act” (pg. 234) that is forever evolving, while being respectful of the other. Sounds familiar? The Sinic civilizations spoke of yin, yang, and the resulting dao. The author concludes: “We share our lives happily in our separation.” (pg. 275)

All these are mere insights. If you want truths, join the High Table.

A final word on style: the author is also a poet – one can tell. Like in Sinic poetry, she can conjure landscapes and moods by stringing words one after another, stripped of all unnecessary forgettable words – pronouns, articles, prepositions, and other connectors. There is a deep beauty in such starkness.


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