Helen Macdonald on hawks, nature and the world

March 21, 2016

British writer and naturalist Helen Macdonald knew that when she set out to train a goshawk, death would be part of the equation. Goshawks are fierce predators, and taming one would mean participating in the slaughter of pheasants, rabbits and whatever else her hawk, Mabel, decided to hunt.

What Macdonald didn’t realize is that apparently ferocious raptors also enjoy a brisk game of catch.

"When people talk about goshawks, they tend to describe them as feathered shotguns, killers," says the author of the award-winning memoir "H is for Hawk." "They’ll say you can feed a family on what they catch. But I discovered my goshawk was playful. We watched television and played games. I used to scrunch up papers and throw them, and she’d catch them and throw them back. We’d play for hours. My falconer friends were horrified. ‘You don’t play with goshawks!’ But they all do, they just don’t like to talk about it, which tells you more about the culture of masculinity than it does about goshawks. Animals are always much more than the fixed ideas we have of them."

But "H is for Hawk" (Grove, $16 in paper) is not merely a story about the relationship between a woman and a bird. It’s also a profoundly moving meditation on grief, the natural world and our place in it and an attempt to make sense of a classic work of literature. After the sudden death of her beloved father in 2007, Macdonald — reeling over the loss, single, with no job and too much time on her hands — turned a long-held fascination with birds of prey into an obsession. She had studied and bred falcons but had never worked with the notoriously difficult goshawk. Inspired by a dream and the memory of T. H. White’s book "The Goshawk" — which chronicles the author’s disastrous attempts to train his bird and casts a wide, melancholy shadow over Macdonald’s book — Macdonald set out to learn about life and death on the wing, sometimes becoming almost as feral as her hawk.

Five years later, Macdonald — now an affiliated research scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science — sat down to write about her experience.

"When I finished I sat there staring and thought, ‘Oh my God, no one is going to read this. This is a really, really strange book,’ " she says. Instead, "H is for Hawk" went on to win the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction and also appeared on 25 "best books of 2015" lists, including the Miami Herald’s. Author and environmental activist Rick Bass calls it "a work of great spirit and wonder, illuminated equally by terror and desire … not just a definitive work on falconry; it is a definitive work on humanity."

Macdonald says that her falconry friends feared the book’s popularity would unleash a desire in the public to buy goshawks. That didn’t happen, thankfully; Macdonald’s grueling struggles make the process seem fascinating and rewarding but also frustrating and extraordinarily difficult.

"People want to see a bird of prey — but they don’t want to train one themselves," she says. "That’s the ideal response."

Good thing, too, because training a goshawk isn’t exactly like teaching your dog to walk on a leash. A hawk is solitary, Macdonald explains, and almost always frightened of you until you convince the creature that you’re a friend and food source (Macdonald wooed Mabel with frozen chick corpses — a far cry from Purina).

Then there’s the matter of the prey. Once it’s free to hunt, a goshawk does not bother to kill its dinner before dining; it just dives right in. Macdonald does not romanticize this gruesome fact and reveals a lovely streak of humanity in her response to it. She loved her hawk but could not be like her — and so she found herself scrambling to break the necks of small doomed creatures to end their suffering before Mabel could eat them alive.

"What happened that year was odd," she muses now. "I did think about those pheasants and rabbits. I felt accountable. I was a vegetarian for years. But when I worked with birds of prey and had to feed falcons, it seemed a bit hypocritical. I do pay close attention to where my food comes from, and I try to eat locally produced, free range meat. I think that when we buy meat at the supermarket we don’t think, ‘There was an animal death at the beginning of this.’ That’s a sobering and important feeling. If you have a steak sandwich, there once was a cow. We have an impact on the world."

Now, Macdonald thinks of herself as a different person from the grief-stricken woman who withdrew from the world, a place Mabel gradually allowed her to view in new and wondrous ways.

"So many millions of different choices and each you might choose will lead you to becoming a different person," Macdonald says. "Mabel taught me a way of thinking about the landscape and the world around me that I can still retrieve — Where’s the wind? Where are the shadows? Where are the rabbits? I still jump when a rabbit appears at my feet. In a brute sense she taught me lessons about life and death … . I was witnessing death on a daily basis. It’s the great mystery: something’s alive one minute, then not alive … . It sounds hackneyed, but none of us are here for very long. She forced me to understand that reconciliation that death is waiting for all of us."

She sees "H is for Hawk"’s ultimate lesson, though, as something more vital than her own transformation.

"Everything is getting quieter and smaller — we’re living in the sixth great extinction, caused by us," she says. "One of the biggest themes of my book is the way we think about the natural world. We use it as a mirror of ourselves. It’s important to consider how and why we do that. We must look past that and see the world itself."

Sadly, Mabel died in late 2013 from an airborne fungus known to swiftly infect the species. Macdonald misses her but says she would not rule out training a goshawk again.

"Poor Mabel. I miss her a lot. She’s buried on the hillside where she used to fly. She was an extraordinary bird. She was the bird of a lifetime … . I have no time now to keep a hawk. But when I have a lot of time and a lot of land and open skies, when my time is more free, another goshawk may well happen."




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