The Great Natural Drama, an interview with Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk

We can now add Helen Macdonald’s name to England’s celebrated tradition of nature writers — except that she would probably bristle at being labeled a “nature writer.” In her new book H is for Hawk, Macdonald tells the story of the goshawk she acquires and trains to help her cope with the grief from her father’s death. It’s a hybrid of a book — a blend of nature writing and memoir, as well as a mini-biography of another hawk enthusiast, the fantasy writer T.H. White.

H is for Hawk won Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, and it’s now landed on bestseller lists in America. A dazzling writer, Macdonald has an almost incantatory power to evoke wonder. “My head jumps sideways,” she writes of the first time she sees her hawk. “She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary.” The goshawk is a feral creature who leads Macdonald into the depths of her own inner wildness. Part of the drama of this story is to see how she pulls herself back from the brink once she’s become “more hawk than human.”

I talked with Macdonald about falconry, wildness, and the dangers of cutting yourself off from the human world. Our conversation aired on Public Radio International’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. You can subscribe to the TTBOOK podcast here.

Steve Paulson: You were very close to your father, who died suddenly from a heart attack. You say it was devastating. Did you find yourself starting to slip into some sort of madness?

Helen Macdonald: Yes, I think after big losses the world really does fracture. I was a very, very good friend of my dad. He wasn’t just a great dad, we were really partners in crime. We both shared obsessions — he loved airplanes, I loved birds and we used to wander around with binoculars looking up at the sky. And he had a massive heart attack and was suddenly gone. We didn’t even know he had any heart problems. And I just struggled to accept it.

SP: You were living alone at the time and didn’t have a regular job. Did you feel isolated?

I came back from the funeral and started to dream about goshawks.

HM: I guess if I’d had a family around me and a regular job and a house I owned and stuff like that, the structure might have kept me in place. But instead, I did something very strange. I came back from the funeral and started to dream about goshawks. Every night I’d go to sleep and wake up with the image of a goshawk flying through my dreams and slipping through the air into nowhere.

SP: You’d actually been a falconer years earlier.

HM: I’d been really obsessed with hawks. I was a very strange child! But I hadn’t flown hawks for a while and I never wanted to fly a goshawk. They’re these legendary, difficult birds — incredibly high strung and nervous, so they’re very hard to tame. And they’re renowned for their murderousness. I had never wanted anything to do with them, but suddenly they were all I could think about.

SP: So you decided to get one.

HM: I did. To deal with the grief, I decided to train a goshawk, which I don’t recommend to anyone. It’s not a particularly good way to deal with loss. But they spoke to me. And this whole decision came on a level that was really beneath conscious examination. When you lose someone very dear to you, you stop thinking logically. What drives you are very deep emotions and needs, and I just needed this goshawk. So I bought one off the Internet.

SP: You drove up to Scotland to get your young goshawk and named her Mabel. But even though you’d had all this experience training falcons when you were young, I got the sense that you didn’t really know what to do with her.

HM: I knew the steps to train a hawk; I’d done it many times before. I knew it was all done with positive reinforcement — with gifts of raw steak. I knew you had to withdraw to a darkened room for the first few days to get the hawk used to you, and then slowly get her used to other people. She jumps to your fist, then flies to it, and eventually you fly her free. I knew all those steps, but I didn’t really know who I was anymore. Now, that sounds really overblown, but I was a mess. And the more I watched the hawk to try and understand what she was feeling so I wouldn’t scare her, the more I empathized with her. Slowly, I sort of forgot who I was. The whole world shrank to just the hawk.

SP: So you cut yourself off from your friends and the human world?

HM: I did — and I think the hawk was to some extent an excuse. You do have to withdraw from the human world when you start training a hawk. So I unplugged the phone, drew the curtains, and told my friends to leave me alone. That kind of radical isolation wasn’t just about training the hawk. I just didn’t want to know about the world anymore. I didn’t like it.

SP: What was the hardest part about training your hawk?

HM: There were some surprises. I didn’t expect my hawk to be quite so friendly and lovely. In many ways, she was much more well-adjusted than I was. The most difficult thing, I guess, was just that because I was so broken at that time, I would worry an awful lot about whether I was doing things right. One of the strange things about this book is that I’ve had a lot of letters from young mums, who’ve been sitting in their houses with their very young children — obviously nothing like hawks — but they’ve said the book reminds them of what it’s like to be in a room with a very young person who can’t speak and is incredibly precious, and you just worry that you’re doing things wrong. I had this desperate sense, am I messing up this hawk, am I upsetting it?

SP: But there’s one huge difference about dealing with a hawk. Everything about a hawk is tuned to hunt and kill, and yet you were living in the middle of Cambridge. Was it hard to go back and forth between city living and this kind of wildness?

HM: I had to take the bird outside to get it used to people. If this had been the 17th century, I would have been totally unremarkable. Everyone was walking around with hawks. But I was pretty unusual, and Cambridge is a pretty eccentric place. You can wander around and speak Latin and wear clothes with holes, and that’s fine. But you try walking around with a hawk on your fist and you do get some pretty weird stares. I was trying to get the hawk used to people, but at that point I myself was pretty much as scared of people as the hawk was. So it was a very weird experience to try to get her used to the human world at the same time as me wanting to refuse that world. I pretty much wanted to stay indoors!

SP: You write that there was a period when you were becoming more hawk than human.

I became this feral creature covered in mud and blood and thorn scratches. I didn’t wash my hair. I was a mess, but it was an incredibly good way of forgetting that I was miserable.

HM: By the time I left the house with the hawk, I started to see the city through her eyes. Obviously, this is all in my imagination. Hawks have a very different sensory world than us. They see more colors and they see polarized light, so I didn’t share her literal vision. But I would come out and stare at what was going on and it would baffle me. I’d wonder what a bus was. Why is that woman throwing a ball for her dog — why would you do that? The whole city became very odd. Later, when the hawk began to fly free and hunt her own food, I really felt that I wasn’t a person anymore. I ran around after her in the bright open hillsides around Cambridge and watched this great natural drama — the hunting behavior of a wild hawk — and really completely lost touch with who I was. I became this feral creature covered in mud and blood and thorn scratches. I didn’t wash my hair. I was a mess, but it was an incredibly good way of forgetting that I was miserable.

SP: You also participated in the kill. Your hawk, Mabel, would catch a rabbit and you’d pry it out of her talons and then snap its neck to quicken the death.

HM: Yeah, it’s ironic. I’m one of the most sentimental and soft people you can imagine. I get upset when people step on spiders! But goshawks in the wild are not particularly bothered….if they catch something, they just start eating and at some point the poor thing is going to die. So I had to get in there and put the poor things out of their misery. That was a really astonishingly strong and serious moment every time. As I ran around with the hawk, I felt like an animal, almost like I could fly. But every time I had to kneel down and administer the coup de grace to some poor rabbit, I felt intensely responsible and very human. It made me realize that we don’t really see death much anymore. It all takes place behind walls, with people often in hospitals, with animals in slaughterhouses. The great irony is that I was running away from death, and yet there it was every single day. It was a deeply educational experience.

SP: Did you ever feel bad about this — not just that you were killing rabbits, but you were putting the hawk out there to kill wild creatures?

One of the things I learned is that we often use nature as a mirror of ourselves, and we use nature to justify things that humans do.

HM: That never really bothered me. That’s what birds do, that’s how they live. I don’t think you can apply human morality to birds of prey. One of the things I learned is that we often use nature as a mirror of ourselves, and we use nature to justify things that humans do. And one of the most important things to remember about birds is they’re not us! I was privileged to be part of her world at that time, but she wasn’t a person. It was very fascinating, and it taught me a lot. But I was never bloodthirsty.

SP: You’re also talking about the nature of wildness. Have you figured out what it means to be wild?

HM: Well, the weird thing about hawks is that we see them as remote symbols of wildness. Of course, Mabel was very wild, but then I’d bring her home and she’d sit on my hand and we’d watch television in the evenings and we’d play. I’d throw her scrunched up bits of paper and she’d catch them in her beak and throw them back to me. So she was a much more complicated and bewitching and strange and interesting and contradictory creature than just something that was made of wildness. I think we’ve invented this category of what wild is. We know what it is when we encounter it, but it’s complicated.

SP: Is wildness what is not human?

HM: Ultimately, yes, but in that sense, a chicken is wild. I think pretty much everything that isn’t human is a wild thing. But now when we talk about wildness, we think of mountain tops and predators. There’s a dangerous element to wildness, a sense that humans are being tested against it. That’s the kind of wildness I turned away from at the end of the book.

SP: Most of us don’t have any encounters with wildness other than fleeting glimpses. I mean, you’re not talking about a loving relationship with a dog. A goshawk is wild in some primal way and will never be domesticated.

HM: One of the great things about living with a hawk that year, apart from the emotional effects it had on me as a grieving woman, was that it was a way of encountering a wild animal in a very intimate, domestic setting. Although we went out every day and flew, there were these hours when we just hung out together. There’s not much opportunity for people to have that kind of relationship with a wild animal anymore. I fervently believe that the environment’s in big trouble and we should fight to protect all the astonishing life that’s out there. But you don’t fight to protect things unless you know and love them. I loved falconry, and this bird in particular, for showing me that these things really are astonishing.

SP: You also seem to be talking about the experience of wonder.

HM: It’s what the poet Wordsworth would have called joy — joy and wonder. That’s at the heart of what I love about the natural world. If you’re receptive to it, it does something to human minds that nothing else can do. There’s a wonderful piece of writing in one of Iris Murdoch’s philosophical books about what it’s like when you’re sitting in a room feeling cast down by life and everything seems to be crowding in on you, and you look out the window and see a kestrel hovering, and you become so tied up with that sight. I think she says, “The world becomes all kestrel, and all your fears and cares fall away in that moment of concentration.” That wonderment and joy is always there if we look for it in the natural world. It’s incredibly important to give our life space for that.

SP: Another thread to this story is your fascination with The Goshawk by T.H. White, which was published in 1951. Of course, he’s best known for his Arthurian fantasy novel The Once and Future King. Why were you so interested in White’s experience with his own goshawk?

HM: Well, I read it when I was very young and obsessed with birds of prey, and I absolutely hated it. It was about a man who was trying to train a goshawk, and he didn’t seem to know what he was doing. The bird was clearly suffering as he tried to bend it to his will. I remember flinging the book down and shouting to my poor long-suffering mother that he was doing it all wrong. I didn’t understand why a grownup would write a book like that about something he didn’t know. Many years later I realized that it was a deeply tragic, melancholy book about an attempt to fix oneself through training a hawk, which is what I wound up doing myself.

SP: You describe White as a tortured man. His parents hated each other and they didn’t seem to care about him. He was beaten as a child. He was gay at a time when you had to hide your sexual orientation. He was pretty miserable for much of his life.

HM: And the very sad thing about White is that he was incredibly successful, and yet despite his fame was clearly never happy or contented. He really was broken by his childhood experiences. His story is tangled up with mine because I wanted to try to get inside his head in the same way I tried to get inside the goshawk’s head.

SP: Why was it important to White to have this encounter with a goshawk?

So when he was fighting the hawk, he was in a weird way trying to civilize himself.

HM: He saw the goshawk as a lot of the things that he wanted to be. Being gay, being broken in many ways, having had a horrendous education, he wanted to train this hawk in an enlightened way. You can’t punish hawks, you can’t even shout at them because they don’t respond to that, and he liked that idea. He thought he could educate the hawk in the way he himself should have been educated. But he also saw the hawk as something feral — slightly gay, slightly sadistic — all the things he felt himself inside to be. So when he was fighting the hawk, he was in a weird way trying to civilize himself. It became a battle with himself in the form of a bird. And of course the bird itself came out quite badly in that battle.

SP: You seemed to read everything written by and about T.H. White. Did he end up haunting you?

HM: In a strange way, he did. I went down to the literary archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, so I could go through all of White’s old journals and notebooks. Sometimes you look at a page and there are tear spots when he’s been crying — and you can see when he’s very drunk because his writing’s all over the place. And I’m holding and feeling these pages and outside it’s 90 degrees and there are vultures, and I’m reading about muddy winters in England, and I really did start to feel that he was somehow there.

SP: Coming back to this period when you felt you were becoming more hawk than human, how did you re-enter the human world?

HM: It got really bad. I started to do things that goshawks did. I’d either stuff my face with food and then not eat for days or I’d not eat at all. I’d literally hide behind the sofa if I saw people pass by the house. I got pretty nuts. It was at my dad’s memorial service in London when I realized I’d bought into that old chestnut that nature writing books tell you — that when you’re broken, running to the wild will heal you, it will be a place of solace and renewal. But I’d gone way too far and become seriously depressed. So I went to a local doctor and ended up going on anti-depressants, which were very helpful. I also made a big effort to see people again and negotiate that balance between wild and tame that I’d got very wrong. I managed to crawl back into the world slowly. I remember looking out the window one morning to check the weather and suddenly thinking the sky looked beautiful. At that moment, I knew that things were going to be okay.

SP: What eventually happened to your goshawk, Mabel?

HM: I flew her for many more years, in a much less feral, intense manner. We continued to watch television, and she continued to catch pheasants. But I had a life change. I couldn’t fly her every day for a while, so I lent her to someone in the north of England who was a very good falconer. Unfortunately, a couple of years ago she passed away very suddenly while she was in an aviary, from an airborne fungal infection called aspergillosis. It’s a horrible thing that attacks wild goshawks, and she just died overnight. We were all in pieces, anyone who’d known my goshawk. Mabel was a very unusual bird. I got this great email from this man saying she was the softest goshawk he’d ever known. And then he paused and put in brackets, “unless you were a rabbit.” So she’s much missed, but not by rabbits.

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