When I meet Helen Macdonald to discuss her astonishing book H is for Hawk, she recounts an uncanny encounter on the banks of the Syr Darya River in central Asia. It was long before she’d even thought about owning a goshawk of her own, yet left an indelible mark on her.
“It was a messy riverside forest in autumn so everything looked dead,” she explains, setting the scene. “Silver lizards were running around on the ground—a really beautiful place. And I looked up and thought I saw a man in a tree. I looked again and realized it was a goshawk; but I couldn’t quite understand, he looked like a man sitting there, and then he opened his wings—and it was like a man putting on a coat—and then he disappeared.”
We’re talking about the mystical and mythical connection between humans and animals, a bond that often shows itself during our darkest moments. “I think when we search for meaning, when we search to rebuild our lives after loss, these old symbols are there,” Macdonald explains, “and that sense that you can cross from the human world into the natural one; we use animals to gesture towards other worlds.”
In 2007, while Macdonald was a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, her father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. They were extremely close—“He was my best friend,” she tells me by way of explanation—and in the aftermath of this momentous, life-changing loss Macdonald bought and trained a goshawk she named Mabel, slipping into a twilight existence somewhere between the animal and human worlds as she negotiated the grieving process. Five years later, in 2012, she sat down to write H is for Hawk, the book that describes this period of her life.
On first glance it’s a fascinating, if genre-defying, hybrid—a raw, no-holds-barred memoir of grief; something of an austringer’s manual (falconers train falcons, while austringers train hawks); and what she calls a “shadow biography” of T.H. White, the English author and falconer/austringer whose own account of training a goshawk, The Goshawk, was published in 1951, but who remains better known for his sequence of Arthurian novels The Once and Future King (published in 1958, but composed during the ’30s and ’40s), stories that defined the particular image of the legend of King Arthur that we now all hold in our collective consciousness, and served as the basis for the Disney film The Sword in the Stone and the Broadway musical Camelot. If the ingredients of Macdonald’s book sound unusual, that’s because they are, but they’ve proven themselves a potent mix: H is for Hawk has won both the prestigious 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year Award in the U.K., not to mention perching high in the bestseller lists, and it now looks set to do the same in America.
Macdonald had previously trained other birds of prey—she’d even worked as assistant to the director of the falcon program at the National Avian Research Center in Abu Dhabi for a time, organizing conservation projects and breeding falcons for one of the UAE’s royal families—but she’d never flown goshawks, birds that are notoriously difficult to train. After her father died, she dreamed again and again of an encounter she’d had with a female goshawk while working at a bird-of-prey center in England. The bird, who had flown into a fence and knocked itself out, had been brought to them by a Good Samaritan. In one of the early chapters of the book, Macdonald describes the creature rising out of the box she’d been kept in: “Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles. So wild and spooky and reptilian […] Then she turned her head to stare right at me. Locked her eyes on mine down her curved black beak, black pupils fixed. Then, right then, it occurred to me that this goshawk was bigger than me and more important. And much, much older: a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean. There was a distinct, prehistoric scent to her feathers; it caught in my nose, peppery, rusty as storm-rain.” She’s haunted by this scene, replaying it over and over again in her mind, and once she acknowledges the pull, “the hawk was inevitable.” Soon she finds herself standing on a Scottish quayside, nervously drinking a can of soda and smoking a cigarette, £800 in cash in her back pocket, waiting to buy her own goshawk fresh off the boat from Ireland.
In many ways she was treading in T.H. White footsteps, as he too trained his goshawk when he was at his most vulnerable. Macdonald had gorged on White’s account of this experience (along with other falconry texts) as a child; she oscillated between wanting to be an illustrator and a falconer when she grew up. Her childhood reading was a diet of Enid Blyton and birds of prey books; a combination, she tells me, bound to have given her “a strange view of the world,” as well as turning her, as she admits in the book, into “the most appalling [ten-year-old] falconry bore.”
“One of the things I’ve realized more recently,” she tells me, “is that maybe one of the reasons I flew to White’s book The Goshawk after losing Dad is because I’d learnt that one of the things you do when you’re broken is get a goshawk—not that it’s something I’d recommend,” she adds with a laugh.
In many ways her experience with Mabel was both a coping mechanism and the fulfillment of a deep-rooted desire that had been nestled in her since she was a child. She’d also had a childish desire to actually be a hawk, attempting to sleep with her arms folded behind her back like wings at night—like the Wart in The Once and Future King, who’s transformed into a merlin by the magician Merlyn: “I had loved that scene as a child,” she says in the book. “I had read it over and over again, thrilling at the Wart’s toes turning into talons and scratching on the floor, his primary feathers bursting in soft blue quills from the end of his fingers.”
Adulthood might well have cured her of this naïve wish for physical metamorphosis, but one of the most interesting elements of the book is Macdonald’s retreat into the animalistic world. “I really didn’t know who I was at that point,” she confirms when I ask her about this, “and part of me wanted to be the hawk. I was projecting these things onto my hawk, I then saw them in the hawk, and then I wanted to be those things by hanging out with the hawk. I saw her as being solitary, that sense of self-possession, of being independent, of not needing anyone else, and being utterly in the present, and powerful with it—I wanted to be that.”
Thus she, White, and Mabel become intricately entwined. “He really was there when I was training the hawk,” she confirms, “a strange, eerie precursor” to her own experience.
“Like White I wanted to cut loose from the world,” she explains in the book, “and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.”
Despite knowing fantastic success during his lifetime, and, what Macdonald describes to me as “flashes of great joy,” White was ultimately never happy. He endured a miserable childhood spent with unhappily married parents before he was sent away to boarding school—both experiences that instructed him in that certain type of stiff-upper-lip British character—and his adult life was defined by his closeted homosexuality.
Macdonald’s decision to write much of the biographical sections from White’s point of view makes for fascinating reading. Given her own relationship with The Goshawk, she always knew White was going to play a significant role in the book, but she didn’t realize quite how central a figure he would become until she visited his archive at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The notebooks she encountered there were, she tells me, “bewilderingly strange—they’re full of feathers that have been stuck in, and drawings, and photographs, and you can tell from his script that he’s often quite drunk when he’s writing, and sometimes you look at the page and you can see tear spots where he’s been crying.” Poring over his words in what she describes as “such an alien landscape,” she says she had the uncomfortable feeling of being haunted by his presence.
One can well understand how she was drawn to this complex and contradictory individual, but her decision to tell his story in the first person also fits with one of the main themes of the book: the attempt to put yourself in the minds of others, and “how alluring and dangerous” this is. She may not be sprouting feathers in the style of the Wart, but almost immediately after she brings Mabel home, there’s an alignment of personalities and psychology that has Macdonald “turning into a hawk all the same.”
“To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods,” she elucidates in the book. “I had put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, and as the days passed in the darkened room my humanity was burning away.”
She becomes “the hawk woman”—the stripping away of the things that make her human is helped by the fact that her fellowship draws to a close, and with it her residency in the house where she’s been living in Cambridge; she’s also not spending time with friends since Mabel occupies her every waking moment. She feels “incomplete” without her goshawk on her hand; the bird becomes her daemon, the animal counterpart each of the humans in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy have and cannot be separated from. But the reality of this much longed for human to animal transformation is not the “magical thing” she’d dreamed it would be as a child, but a confusing psychological state that instead brought “something akin to madness”: “I’d fled to become a hawk, but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me.”
This becomes one of the big subjects of the book—the way we use nature as a mirror. “We do this to animals all the time,” Macdonald explains to me. “I talked a little in the book about the dark history of falconry—how it fascinated people like Goering, for example—not only as something from the Teutonic past, but also because these birds prey on things that are weaker than themselves without any guilt, it’s like, ‘This is what happens in nature, so we can do these things. We have this power over other people.’ You have to think about these things if you interact with hawks, I think. You have to turn the mirror back on yourself and say, ‘What am I thinking here?’ Hawks aren’t excuses for atrocities; they should be treasured because they’re resolutely inhuman. They are murderous things, but they aren’t murderous in ways that we understand.”
Thus we shouldn’t and can’t make them an emblem for something inherently human?
“Exactly, and that’s really important. I guess a part of me wanted to investigate hawks in a more cultural way in the book. There’s a legacy of a lot of academic thought bound up in it. It’s always important to try to understand why we think of nature in the ways we do.”
Although it’s something of a species all of its own, H is for Hawk is also very clearly part of what could be described as something of a renaissance in nature writing that’s taking place right now. And indeed, when Macdonald suggests that this might be driven, at least in part, by people writing “a kind of testimony” to what rural landscapes used to be like, I’m put in mind of Robert Macfarlane’s new book Landmarks, in which he traces the relationship between words and landscape, particularly those words used to describe landscape that we’re slowly losing as the dictionaries make way for 21st-century speak.
One of the things that makes H is for Hawk such an dazzling book is that way that Macdonald elegantly weaves all these multitudinous and extremely complex issues into a single work of seamless prose. It’s clear that this sort of probing, self-reflexive enquiry comes naturally to her, but some of the clarity—especially the way that she eloquently analyses her own psychology—surely comes with distance. Some books come from the very center of the fug of grief, that “incredibly strange place” she explains, citing Joan Didion’s masterly The Year of Magical Thinking as an example of what she’s talking about, “but I had to wait and write it later.” As such, she can’t, she’s says, honestly describe writing the book as a cathartic experience in the way we so often expect memoirs to be. “Writing’s never therapeutic,” she adds jokingly, “you sit there swearing and weeping and stuffing your face with junk food for months on end.” That said, once she’d written the final sentence, she did experience the feeling of a cloud lifting. “I honestly felt weak and dizzy, and my eyes filled with tears—not because I was proud of the last sentence, but because I’d put down that great weight, and it was over. It felt like I’d made a complete thing.”
Traditionally falconry has always represented the active life, while the study of books is the very symbol of a contemplative one. “I’ve always flown between the two,” Macdonald explains—history or falconry; falconry or literature—thus part of the satisfaction she felt on completing the book comes, she’s sure, from being able for the very first time to “pull” those two sides of her existence together; an active process, of course, which is tracked in the narrative of the book itself.
She beautifully describes the “archeology of grief” as something that lacks order: “It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.”
“Grief shatters narratives about the world,” she explains when I ask her to elaborate on this. “That’s one of the reasons the book is fragments of many different stories all together; it’s hard to tell a single story about something like that.”
Nevertheless, H is for Hawk stands as testament to the cohesive whole Macdonald’s made by fusing these apparently disparate parts together; and with it she arose like a phoenix out of the ashes of her own life: “I became a different person,” she tells me in conclusion, “but one who wasn’t broken anymore.”
Although Macdonald makes her way back to the land of the living by the end of the book, her story has a tragic postscript. Only a few years later, when she was only 6, Mabel died from a sudden, untreatable infection, and Macdonald has been without a bird since.
“I always said I’d never get another goshawk,” she tells me when I ask about her loss, “but then just a few weeks ago this extraordinary thing happened. I went to Ireland where there are some very good falconers, and I met a goshawk called Baby Dee, and we flew her, and I fed her and stuff, and then I didn’t want to give her back, and I realized, of course there’ll be another goshawk, I just needed a few years to mourn Mabel.”
And before I even ask, she’s showing me a picture of Baby Dee perched on her hand—a beautiful, majestic bird, with an oddly knowing look in her eye—and Macdonald is beaming like a proud parent.
“Once things calm down with the book,” she says, “then I’ll get another one.”