I'm too late to say the first nice thing about Helen Macdonald. Doubtless her writing----scholarly work, essays, and erudite poetry----have made heads nod and shake in amazement for years. Author Steve Bodio recently raved of this fellow writer and falconer: "Her blog posts are better than most essays published for money today. I just went through the latest New Yorker and there was nothing to compare with her best."
Agreed. With Falcon, her first book on birds, Helen Macdonald manages to make a lesser work of everyone else's treatment of the topic. That's a big claim: Many remarkable writers and scientists cover the field, but none I know have yet produced a book as smart, insightful, literate or original.
Billed by the publisher as a "cultural and natural history of the falcon," Falcon simply could not have been written by anyone else. Listed among Macdonald's fields of study at Jesus College, Cambridge (where she is a Research Fellow), are: "History of ecology, amateur natural history, biological field-sciences and field-sports/hunting in 20th Century cultures; history of conservation and ethology; history of biological warfare; war and nature." War and nature! There's depth of interest for you. I could add military aviation to the list, an area of expertise that finds its way often and effectively into the text:
"What of flight, the single most celebrated falcon characteristic? Falcon bodies are heavy in relation to their wing area...Their wings have a high aspect ratio----the ratio between the wingspan and the wing width----and their low-camber wings are long and pointed. The result is a low-drag confirmation more suited to active, flapping flight and fast gliding than soaring."
Adding poetry to physics, Macdonald describes a stooping falcon this way:
"At speeds of over 100 miles an hour, the minutest alterations to her body shape gave punishingly exaggerated effects; she looked, as Franklin later described, shrink-wrapped, mummified. And just as it seemed impossible for her to fall any faster, she'd change her shape again."
The military deployment (that's right: deployment) of trained falcons gets its own chapter in this uniquely well-rounded falcon book. Other sections examine the raptors' biology, conservation, and successful adaptations to urban life. Macdonald reserves one chapter for the looming mythical status of falcons throughout history. And of course, falconry receives special treatment. Our sport takes pride of place in the center of the book, skillfully tying its wide-ranging topics together.
Throughout the text you'll find surprising revelations (no "trivia") that could only result from extensive and enthusiastic study. For example, did you know?
"Falconry techniques and knowledges have been traded between disparate cultures for millennia. European knights took falcons with them on the Crusades, and learned how to hood falcons from their foes...Falconry's symbolic system was largely shared between both sides, and so it was able to articulate power-struggles in ways immediately comprehensible to either."
Then, typically Macdonald, a wry anecdote illustrates the point: "A besieged Richard I sent an envoy to Saladin to request food for his starving falcons; Saladin immediately delivered baskets of his best poultry for the falcons alone."
What Macdonald does with Falcon is bring all of herself to the subject. She breathes life into the work; pulls the lives of falcons and people together into a rare three-dimensional portrait. The effect is illuminating.