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Book Talk

How Training a Wild Hawk Healed One Woman's Broken Heart

One of the things grief does is shatter the narrative of your life, says author.

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Helen Macdonald was at home in Cambridge, England, when she got a phone call saying her father, Alisdair, had died suddenly of a heart attack on a London street. The news shattered her world, propelling her into a vortex of raw grief.

As she struggled to come to terms with her father's loss, she began to have dreams about goshawks, the wildest, most temperamental of the hawk family. An experienced falconer since childhood, she decided to buy and train one. Her memoir of that experience, H Is for Hawk, must be one of the most riveting encounters between a human being and an animal ever written. 

Talking from her home near Newmarket, England, Macdonald describes why Hermann Göring loved hawks, what links the Turkish word for penis with a hawk's ideal flying weight, and how training a goshawk took her to the edge of madness but eventually gave her peace—and a new kinship with other people.

You embarked on the training of a goshawk because of a sudden, personal loss. Can you talk about it?

I don't recommend that people try to train goshawks as a way of managing grief. [Laughs] It's not a brilliant way of going about it. But in March 2007, my very beloved father was out taking photographs of storm-damaged buildings for the Evening Standard in London when he had a massive heart attack and died.

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Helen Macdonald says her beloved father, Alisdair, showed her the world.


We didn't know he had heart problems of any kind, so it was a huge and horrible surprise. As anyone who's experienced loss will know, the first few weeks you're in a total daze. You go to a funeral, you organize things, but you don't really know what's going on.

I went back to Cambridge where I was teaching and thought, everything's fine, I'll just get on with it. But I started dreaming about goshawks. Some part of me that wasn't available to me consciously started to really tell me that I needed to train a hawk.

I'd been a falconer for years on and off. It had been something I'd been obsessed with. But I'd never trained a goshawk—these legendarily difficult, highly strung, murderous birds. But something about them drew me to them, and I ended up buying one off the Internet. [Laughs]

You were very close to your father.

I was close to both my parents. I'm still very close to my mum. But Dad looked at the world very much in the same way I do. He taught me how to see the world. He was very interested in airplanes, and I was very interested in birds. We used to go out on long walks with binoculars and glory in our respective geekdoms. We would laugh about it and say we were both terribly sad individuals with these weird obsessions.

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Alisdair Macdonald, staff photographer with Britain's Daily Mirror in 1962, at age 21. Prone to understatement, he called his camera equipment "kit."


He was also a very nice man, which is something I hope comes across in the book—and a very good photographer. He took the famous picture of Princess Diana and Prince Charles kissing on the balcony after the wedding.

I love your term "the archaeology of grief." What do you mean by that?

One of the things grief does is shatter the narrative of your life. You lose control of that narrative and find yourself excavating old meanings and old ways of looking at the world and living in them again. When I was a child, I was obsessed with hawks, and bereavement made that old obsession flare up again, bright as flame.

You were obsessed with hawks as a child and became a junior falconer. It's a pretty unusual hobby for a child. What attracted you to them?

[Laughs] I don't know how my poor parents put up with me! I used to nag them to take me to zoos and falconry centers. Then, when I was 12, I got my first hawk, a European kestrel called Amy. She used to roost on my bedroom bookcase at night. My Mum would put newspaper down underneath to catch the mess. But they never said to me, for god's sake Helen, could you not do something else?

This obsession predated language. All my life I've had these two strands. One strand is that I'm very interested in history and books and literature and writing. The other strand has been falconry and birds. This book is the first time the two have been brought together, which is great.

We think we're living a straightforward narrative in our lives. We expect that this will happen, then this will happen. Suddenly, when you're grieving, very strange things happen to time. Memories from long ago appear very clearly, as if they happened yesterday. It's a very odd experience. Unconscious motivations start to drive you. Things that happened when you were very small start to tell you what to do.

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The kiss: Helen's father made this iconic photograph of the newly married royal couple Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer, on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, July 29, 1981.


You collect your new goshawk at the docks in Stranraer, in Scotland. Describe that first encounter.

It felt a bit like a drug deal. [Laughs] It was about 8 a.m., a rainy, gray morning in Scotland. I was pacing up and down, exhausted. My friend Christina, who had come to keep me company, was in the car. I had 800 pounds in 20-pound notes in my back pocket. It all seemed very dodgy. [Laughs]

Though it was all aboveboard, I hasten to add. Falconry is highly regulated in Britain. You can't take birds from the wild. They're bred in captivity in aviaries, and there's lots of paperwork associated with them.

Once I'd collected the hawk and put her in the car in her cardboard box, it was like having a new baby in the back of the car.

"Mabel" is an old-fashioned name, more associated with British sitcoms than feathered killing machines. Why did you call your goshawk that?

It's not a name that features very high up the list of new baby names, is it? [Laughs] Why did I call her Mabel? The name just fell into my head. I say in the book it comes from the Latin amabilis, meaning "lovable" or "dear." And, although the hawk drew me towards her because she was ferocious and wild, deep down I was wanting love. So calling your hawk a name that means "love" had a meaning.

There's another strand to that. In the falconry tradition, if you call your bird something like "Spitfire" or "Slayer," it will just sit on a fencepost and screech at you. [Laughs] But if you give goshawks cute names, they'll usually become formidable falconry birds. I have a friend who has a goshawk called Bunty, and another called Babydoll. [Laughs]

You effectively lock yourself in your house in Cambridge with Mabel. What follows is an emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride. Put us inside that pressure cooker.

Training a falcon is an ancient art. It starts by withdrawing from the human world. It's a rite of passage. You lock yourself monkishly in a darkened room. Goshawks are very wild, not at all domesticated. So you have to win their trust very slowly, by giving them gifts of delicious raw steak. It's a very psychologically charged experience. You have to go into modes of being that are almost meditative.

Slowly, as the trust is built, you have to watch the hawk very carefully to know that you're not putting any pressure on it or upsetting it. You start to look through the hawk's eyes, as I think any animal trainer will know. If you watch an animal long enough you will start to know what it's thinking.

But because I isolated myself so utterly, I kind of forgot what it was like to be a person. That is the narrative arc of the book: me running away from the human world because I couldn't bear my grief and trying to become this hawk. It worked too well in a way. I really did start to see the world in this sharply predatory, inhuman way.

Goshawks were often compared to menopausal women—"inexplicable, sulky, flighty." Are they really that bad?

Training a falcon is an ancient art. It starts by withdrawing from the human world. It's a rite of passage.
Author Helen Macdonald

[Roars with laughter] All my falconry books said they're very sulky and infuriating, never behave well, never do what you want them to do. They'll just ignore you and fly off. And the more I read about this, the more it seemed that the writers were talking about hormonal women. It was never the falconer's fault that the bird had flown off. It was always something indescribable inside the hawk that had made them do that.

But I started looking at very old falconry books, ones written in the 17th century, and discovered that goshawks were perceived very differently then. They were seen as creatures you had to court. You had to be very patient and treat them right to make them love you. I thought that was very interesting. It was a window onto gender relations, not just goshawks. [Laughs]

The training is described in incredible detail—did you take notes as you went?

Good question. I started writing a journal after my father died. I was trying to stitch the world back together. I didn't know who I was any longer or what the world was about. Writing was a way of trying to make it come back. And then that world had a hawk in it.  So I did keep a diary. I also kept a hawking notebook, which was very technical. Lists of weights and weather, and things like that. In the end, I didn't really use them very much for writing the book. I remember all that year with astonishing clarity. It's all very present still.

You say that during this period "a kind of madness drifted in." How did it manifest itself?

I was too closely identifying with the hawk. The hawk was everything I wanted to be. She was self-possessed, she lived in the present, she was free from grief, she was murderous.

These were all the things that I wanted. It didn't seem like craziness at the time. It just seemed necessary. But this really came to a head when the hawk started to fly in the farmland around my home and do what goshawks do, which is go hunting.

I was following her round for hours each day, getting very muddy and scratched. It was an addictive feeling. The whole human world fell away, and I was living this feral life that kept my grief at bay. I didn't have any thoughts that were my own. I used to just think about what the hawk was thinking. I bought into that old story that if you're broken, nature will heal you. But I took it a bit far.

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Helen's goshawk, Mabel. The name comes from the Latin amabilis, meaning "lovable." "Although the hawk drew me towards her because she was ferocious and wild, deep down I was wanting love," Helen says.


The book also tells a parallel story, of the British author T. H. White, better known for his reworking of the Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King. He also attempted to train a goshawk for emotional and psychological reasons—but very different ones.

Very different demons. His weren't the demons of grief. They were the demons of a horrendous childhood that left him emotionally scarred. It was also his sexuality—he was gay at a time when that was a real social stigma. So he didn't fit in with the culture of the times. He always felt different. He was a schoolteacher at a public school called Stowe. I don't know if any of the people reading this have been there, but it's an extraordinary place. It's much bigger than Buckingham Palace, with temples and things around it. T. H. White was teaching there. All his life he tried to fit in and be a gentleman and be like everyone else. But finally that false self splintered into a thousand pieces.

This is 1936. War is coming. There's darkness in Europe. So he runs away to a little cottage in the woods to be a falconer. He doesn't know anything about it. He's got a few books. But he gets this poor goshawk, which he calls Gos. It was taken from the wild in Germany, and White tries to train it. He wants to become this medieval or early modern falconer. But he makes a terrible job of it. He's fighting this hawk all the time, because the hawk is himself. He sees the hawk as this slightly fey, sadistic, misunderstood youth. He's trying to tame himself and fight himself. It's this battle with himself. His book The Goshawk is a really extraordinary, distressing piece of literature.

Describe the role of falcons in human culture—from the Crusades to the Nazis.

One of the things I'm really passionate about is trying to kind of uncover the stories that we tell about ourselves through animals. Falconry has this venerable history dating back, probably, to 2000 B.C. For many centuries, it was the sport of the ruling elite. I think that was because these birds are free. If you don't govern them correctly, if you're monstrous and violent to them, they'll just fly away. So falconry was used as a demonstration by rulers that one could rule wisely and not be a tyrant.

For the Nazis it had an entirely different meaning. They saw it as something from the mythical Teutonic past. They saw the birds as miniature Nazis, which preyed on things that were weaker than themselves. Hermann Göring had hawks. He wasn't a very good falconer, but he really liked to walk around with them and show off.

We say, Hawks are powerful and prey on things weaker than themselves. But that's not an excuse for humans to do the same thing.
Helen Macdonald

Part of the reason for writing the book was to uncover that dark history and say, We use animals as excuses. We say, Hawks are powerful and prey on things weaker than themselves. But that's not an excuse for humans to do the same thing. The big lesson of the book is that the natural world is full of minds that are not like our own.

The book is also a dictionary of falconry terms. Tell us about "yarak."

[Laughs] "Yarak" is a great word. It's an old Turkish term, meaning a hawk that is in absolute hunting readiness. Watching Mabel go into yarak was like watching her be possessed by demons. She would suddenly change the way she looked at the world. She became quite scary. All her feathers would fluff up, she'd grip the glove and stare out at the countryside.

Much later, I discovered that "yarak" is also Turkish slang for "penis." [Laughs] I thought it was hilarious that "readiness" and "penis" might mean the same thing. [Laughs uproariously] 

With hawks, it's all about exactly the right balance of food, isn't it? Tell us about "flying weight."

Hawks have a flying weight, a bit like a boxer has a fighting weight. If you have a huge meal, you don't really want to do anything except lounge around and watch television. It's the same with hawks. If they're full, they won't fly, or if they do, they won't come back to you.

Obviously, you don't want a hawk that's too thin. So you have to work very carefully to get your hawk at a particular weight at which it will be happy to fly back to you from any distance for food—and hunt for food itself. That's the flying weight. It's the golden weight of a hawk.

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Mabel and the author take a rest while hawking in England's Cambridgeshire countryside in September 2007.


One of the most moving sections of the book is your father's memorial service, where you have a kind of epiphany. What was it?

[Gasps] Oh, my goodness, sorry. You just mentioning that made my eyes fill with tears. [Pauses] I'd wrenched myself from people, I was frightened of people, I didn't want to see anyone. I used to jump if anyone walked past the window. I was just like a goshawk.

Then I went to my father's memorial, which was in the beautiful St. Bride's church on Fleet Street. It was full of people who'd known him, journalists and colleagues and family. I stood at the lectern and gave a little eulogy. I just looked down at all these loving people and thought, Oh, what have I done? There's a line in the book that I think sums it up. I suddenly thought—human hands have other hands to hold; they shouldn't be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.

That was the big turning point. Since then, I've met so many people who've had their own losses and their own grief, who have also talked about how lonely that is. I guess it's a really obvious realization, and it's taken me a ridiculously long time to work it out, but we're all the same. This stuff happens to everyone.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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