The writer, naturalist, and former falconer on the temporality of grief, inhabiting the voice of T.H. White, and developing radical empathy with a goshawk.
When naturalist and writer Helen Macdonald’s father died unexpectedly in 2007, her world stopped. She withdrew into her cottage near Cambridge University, where she was affiliated with the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, and stuttered through conversations with her close-knit family. Night after night, laden with grief, she dreamt of hawks—until the morning she decided to adopt one.
So begins H is for Hawk. Macdonald had been fascinated with birds of prey since childhood, and as an adult she studied and even bred them for sheikhs in the United Arab Emirates. But the decision to bring a hawk into her home, train it to hunt, and assist in its deadly assaults on unassuming pheasants and rabbits in the Cambridge meadows held a particular allure, one which grief only begins to explain.
Just months after her father’s death, Macdonald found herself on a Scottish quayside waiting for a breeder to deliver her new roommate. Among falconers, Macdonald says, conventional logic states that the more innocuous a bird’s name, the more “proficient” the animal. She knows a hawk named Baby Doll, and another named Bunty; both are lethal. Macdonald named hers Mabel, derived from amabilis in Latin, meaning “worthy to be loved; lovely.” From their initial meeting and for the first time since Macdonald’s relationship with her father, this was a companionship that made sense. “We use animals to think about everything,” Macdonald observes. “Birds are made of metaphors for us.”
Over the course of H is for Hawk, Macdonald interweaves her unfolding love for Mabel with her own sorrow and also sympathy for the late British author T.H. White, famous for his King Arthur novels and less well known for his failed attempts at rearing hawks. As Mabel begins to shake off the disorienting effect of her new circumstances, Macdonald attempts the same, meeting friends for picnics and giving lectures. Each successive hunt the pair undertake together triggers a slew of conflicting emotions in Macdonald, and a range of reactions from those she meets along the way. Some respond with polite curiosity, others with sexist slips of the tongue—the details of which Macdonald hoards in her writing like rabbits—Mabel’s meals—in her freezer.
As Mabel’s kills turn bolder, so does Macdonald’s voice. Her sharp, gleaming prose is thrown into relief by a shadow narrative about White and his pet hawk. Macdonald recounts how White endured abuse as a child, struggled with his homosexuality as an adult, and became an alcoholic; he turned to hawks after finding that he could only be himself around creatures that would not judge him. Even then, however, he was unable to nurture them or win their trust, and lost his badly trained pets to the wilderness, where Macdonald doubts they survived very long. Through these snapshots, and Macdonald’s incisive reflections on her own hawk-raising experience, emerge the contours of a pursuit that is at turns difficult and noble, maddening and healing.
H is for Hawk was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize, the UK’s most prestigious honor for nonfiction writing, and spent more than two months on the New York Times best-sellers list after it was released in the United States in March 2015. Following its American publication I met Macdonald in Brooklyn for a conversation that moved from the experience of profound grief to the nuances of falconry, mystery novels, and New York City’s skies.
—Aditi Sriram for Guernica
Guernica: Almost every review of H is for Hawk mentioned that it won the Samuel Johnson Prize. Johnson adored the essay, and wrote about the form: “There is nothing…too little for so little a creature as man.” What do you think he meant by that?
Helen Macdonald: That’s a wonderful sentence. I love that you’re quoting Samuel Johnson to me. The smallness of human life is obviously one way of looking at it; one of the things that my book taught me is how finite everything is. When you’re young, everything seems possible, new things are going to come—and that first great loss that everyone has changes that forever. Your life becomes small, in a way.
Deep down, [H is for Hawk] is a book about a miserable woman, a bird, and a dead author. But I was taught by the hawk. When I first got Mabel, she would often do things that I found interesting: she’d stare at the reflection the light cast from the sun falling on water, on a cup, or the sink, that flashing, quivering bit of light on the wall. She’d watch that, absolutely fascinated for minutes on end, and because I was putting myself in her mind—that fixed attention on small things, on tiny phenomena in the world—the world became bigger for me. Being inside the hawk’s mind, my imagination made the world a different place. There are the million different sorts of smallnesses in the book that I learned to notice in a different way through the hawk.
I tried to be more guarded about how it felt to lose my dad and it just didn’t work.
Guernica: Did you consider at the time that these tiny details would eventually build into a book and become something you would share with a reader?
Helen Macdonald: I felt there was someone I was writing to, an imagined reader. I wanted it to be intimate and conversational—partly because of all the books on grief that I tried to read after my father died. They all had that sort of tone: “This is what it [will] be like.” I wanted to just be really honest, and when I was writing the book, I struggled. I tried to be more guarded about how it felt to lose my dad and it just didn’t work. I would sit there for hours on end, swearing and smoking cigarettes, and nothing would happen. And finally I realized that the reason it wasn’t happening was because I had to write it. This is going to sound so over the top, but I had to write it from the heart. And once I did, the book started working. It’s really interesting that the “grief memoir” is written either in it—like The Year of Magical Thinking, which is an extraordinary, moving, difficult book—or much later. And I needed the “much later” for my writing.
Guernica: Did you try to write immediately after you lost your father?
Helen Macdonald: I knew I couldn’t. It was too raw. But I knew already that there was some story there that wanted to be told. I was wrangling with an animal of some description that wasn’t quite alive. It wouldn’t let me do certain things; it insisted I do other things. It became a kind of conversation with something else. That was a fascinating thing to experience. I’d written things before: I’d written poetry, I’d written academic work, [but] nothing like that had ever happened before. I’ve read interviews with writers and they say things like, “The story wanted to be told!” And I used to roll my eyes at that. But it really is true!
Traditionally nature writing has been a wonderfully avuncular genre: white boys taking you around the countryside, pointing things out.
Guernica: What was the story that wanted to be told?
Helen Macdonald: I wanted it to be a memoir about grief, certainly. In England there is this notion of the “misery memoir” as a genre, the “misery lit” genre. And I’m really happy for it to be seen as that, because it was a very miserable time. But I also wanted it to be nature writing, and I wanted it to be a biography. Having all those three genres in one book was a very definite decision I made. What grief does is shatter narratives: the stories you tell about your life, they all crumble at this point. Things become very confused, your agency is called into question, you’re not really sure who you are or what you’re facing, and I wanted that confusion to be in the text.
I was also interested in nature writing as a genre. Traditionally it’s been a wonderfully avuncular genre: white boys taking you around the countryside, pointing things out and saying this is what they are, this is what they mean. That’s fine. I’m not complaining about that. When I was a child that was my favorite kind of book: how to learn about the world, this is the person who will show you. But I wanted my book to have more voices in it than that. I wanted to talk about nature in a way that wasn’t pedagogical. You know military techno thrillers? They’re always full of acronyms and military jargon, but they never explain what those things are, because they assume either that the reader knows, or that the reader will feel pleased that the author isn’t talking down to them and explaining what those things are. I think of nature like that. I use a lot of technical terms about falconry, about nature; I name species left, right, and center. I don’t want to explain, I want to show what it felt like to be out there with all these things.
And the biography, well, that was never going to be quite as big as it turned out to be. It wasn’t until I went to Texas and went through T.H. White’s archives that I started to feel that he was a very important presence in the book. I wanted to write this shadow biography in a particular way, by inhabiting his voice. It was very hard. I read a lot of his work, all his letters and journals, to apostrophize his style. What I love about The Goshawk—as well as hate, for its manifest tragedy and cruelty—is its expert tone. This is a man telling you how to do things, when in fact he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and part of the expertise is not knowing what one is doing. That lent a poignancy to my book. I wanted to put myself in White’s mind in the same way that I tried to put myself into the mind of a hawk; it was an exercise. But although the book was emotionally hard to write, and there were some tricky bits to try and stitch together, it was easy to write. I just wrote it from beginning to end. I didn’t patchwork.
Guernica: What do you think White would have said about your book?
Helen Macdonald: Oh no! Oh, what an underhanded question! [laughs]. He would have hated me: he didn’t think women should get the vote. He really was terrified of women; I am a woman. But he was very good friends with [the actress] Julie Andrews. There’s an incredibly moving story where he visits Julie Andrews and her husband for Christmas, and they make him a red stocking full of toys, and he says, “What is this?” And they say, “Tim, it’s a Christmas stocking!” He says, “Is it for me?” And they say, “Yes!” And there’s an extraordinary scene [in Andrews’s memoirs] of him unwrapping his toys and having to go out of the room and weep because no one ever gave him a Christmas stocking when he was a child. I feel very compassionate toward the child that White was. I feel very sad that he grew up at a time when his sexuality was basically reviled. He liked to be noticed. He used to wear very flamboyant clothes. When he was in America he’d be wearing opera cloaks, red socks, red jumpers. He was both intensely private but also pretty flamboyant. Maybe that flamboyance in him would have liked the fact that people were reading about him. And I’m sure people are going out and buying The Goshawk now because of this book, which is a wonderful thing.
Guernica: What sort of reactions have readers had to H is for Hawk?
Helen Macdonald: I got a letter from an eleven-year-old boy obsessed with falconry. And he wrote this exquisite letter to me, with very careful handwriting, about how he loves falconry, he’s read these books, and could I give him an idea about which books to read? And he forgot to put his address on the letter. I’m still mourning this. Of all the letters, that’s the one I want to reply to! And I really hate the idea that there’s a small boy out there thinking that I don’t want to reply to him.
I get a lot of letters from young moms with new babies. Some of them have said things like, “When I read your book about hawks, I thought, [it’s] the same thing! Here I am alone in a house with this thing, I don’t really understand what it is, what it’s saying, I can’t communicate with it, but it’s very friendly; what do I do?” That’s been really astonishing.
Language gives out in the face of something like a goshawk. That relationship between a human and a bird of prey is wordless.
Guernica: What about reactions from other falconers?
Helen Macdonald: I was worried about that. Falconers have traditionally been quite private as a group, and in the last century there have been reasonably few female falconers, so I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider. But I’ve had a lot of positive responses from falconers, which I didn’t expect. Getting letters from incredibly skilled falconers saying, “I liked your book”—that’s been lovely. Falconers treasure what they do.
A lot of people assume that falconry is a cruel thing because they think it’s to do with subjecting an animal to your will and controlling it. I hope that my book shows that it’s not like that. I also hope that no one will read my book and then think, “I know, I really need a goshawk.” When I see Mabel for the first time and she comes out of the box, there’s this litany of me desperately trying to explain what that was like, and I fail every single time. Language gives out in the face of something like a goshawk. That relationship between a human and a bird of prey is wordless. It’s a very strangely enlightened relationship in which the bird could just fly off whenever it wanted. It’s flown free. It doesn’t come back from coercion; it comes back because it wants to come back to you, because you have food, because it likes you.
Mabel was an unusually calm and delightful goshawk to hang around. She used to tug on my sleeve when she was playful, and we’d mess around with paper telescopes and bits of card. My male falconer friends were horrified and said, “You don’t play with goshawks.” I always thought they saw them a little bit like feathered shotguns: these lethal machines made of feathers and bone. But of course I found out later that they all play with their goshawks; they just don’t let on, because it’s not what you’re supposed to do.
Guernica: Do you think grief is a time in which we realize that we can do what we’re not supposed to do?
Helen Macdonald: I don’t think it’s that we do what we’re not supposed to. It’s that we don’t know what we’re supposed to do anymore.
Guernica: Were you supposed to train a hawk?
Helen Macdonald: Certainly my motives for getting that goshawk were invisible to me at the time. It was all way below conscious examination. I didn’t feel in control of my life at all. But the goshawk wasn’t a replacement for loss. It was an escape from being me. It was an escape from distraction. It was an escape from deep concentration on something, to the point where one forgets one’s self utterly. The book traces that radical empathy to the point where it becomes quite damaging to my mental health. I thought that I was [Mabel] for a while; that’s not normal [laughs]. Then I realized that not only was she not me, but she was nothing like me.
My grief had broken down a lot of assumptions I had about the world. When I was a young falconer, I trusted everything that I read to tell me what these birds were like. We see hawks as symbols of wildness and ferocity, and because my assumptions had broken down, and I was living so closely with a hawk, I started to realize that the stories we tell about things are always too simple. And the falconer’s stories are so partial that you have to remember, there’s always more to a bird of prey.
Guernica: You rejected the bird originally assigned to you and asked for the other one the breeder had brought with him. Did you ever wonder what would have happened if you had gone home with the other hawk?
Helen Macdonald: I heard on the grapevine that the hawk I should have had was pretty untameable, and she was difficult, nervous, and aggressive. She ended up in a breeding project because she just couldn’t be handled, so I think I dodged a bullet there. But I knew as soon as I saw that first hawk, that was my hawk. And when he said, “No, that isn’t your hawk,” I was like, “What?” And there I was, pleading with this poor man on the quayside in Scotland. He must have thought I was very strange.
I sent him a copy of the book, the man who bred Mabel, and he and his wife were really pleased. I wrote a long letter in it, thanking him for the best hawk I’ve ever known. So that was nice.
Guernica: What are you reading these days?
Helen Macdonald: Recently, I read Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. It was extraordinary: a post apocalyptic, deeply humane, beautiful piece of science fiction.
The Iceberg, by Marion Coutts, is an extraordinary memoir about losing her husband, who was a renowned art critic, to a brain tumor. In this book they have a young son who is learning to talk as his father starts to lose language. That was one of the most astonishing books. I was transfixed by it. Her work is marvelously wrought and quite experimental, yet says very blunt things.
My world contracted to a point and that point was the hawk.
Guernica: Your book also explores how drastic loss abuts a drastically new relationship in your life.
Helen Macdonald: There’s a clear arc to the book that comes from falconry. You get your hawk, and you’re suddenly in a small, dark space with it. And slowly the room lightens as you go outside with the hawk, and then eventually you’re in these huge open landscapes with flowing clouds and the hawk is flying at sixty, seventy miles per hour across these landscapes. There’s a huge opening out—and at the same time, there was a very deep narrowing for me. My world contracted to a point and that point was the hawk. So those two things operate at the same time in the book, and they run opposite each other. I edited as I went along, ferociously. Every chapter I wrote—every half-chapter, even paragraphs—I would rewrite twenty times. Occasionally, stuff would just come out and it didn’t need work. But that was very infrequent. Because I was editing as I went, when I sent the manuscript to my editor, there were very few changes. That was shocking: “Wow, you’re just going to take it!” That was a lovely feeling, that I had made something that wasn’t broken.
Guernica: Did you read anything while you were writing?
Helen Macdonald: I didn’t want to read anything that was stylistically similar, that had a strong voice. I read a lot of mystery novels. They were very comforting: the mystery is solved, bad people always get their comeuppance, everything is revealed at the end. Once you’ve finished a mystery novel, it’s finished. You can put it down. It’s not like the book that works its way into you, that you think about while you’re trying to do something else.
Guernica: Would you call the ending of your book a reveal? That you could let Mabel go, and be with people again?
Helen Macdonald: The book’s got two endings. The postscript ending is when I put down T.H. White and I walk away. And that’s the ending people talk about; it seems a very clear ending. But the moment when I thought, “That’s it, the book’s finished,” was when I walk into my friend’s house and the kettle’s on and the dogs are lying on the floor, and the house is very warm and it’s a very human place. And I guess it was that realization that I’d said good-bye to Mabel for the next few months, that she would change, her plumage would change color, she would forget me, but that was all right. It was a loss, but it was a loss that was okay.
Guernica: Did Mabel forget you?
Helen Macdonald: She went to a friend, a falconer who had a large aviary, and she spent the summer there molting feathers and catching rats and just having a nice time. I believed that she would forget me, because all the books I read when I was a kid said that goshawks go wild like that. I assumed that when I picked her up in the autumn after she’d grown her new feathers, we’d have to start again. I was completely wrong. I picked her up and she was like, “Hi, Helen.” She completely remembered me.
This is one of those wonderful ways in which goshawks complete me. Animals always wreck your assumptions. The big lesson in the book is to appreciate that the things that we think are like us, are often—always—nothing like us. It’s impossible to know what a goshawk sees or what it thinks. You get a good working model seeing it interact, but you can never really know. And it’s exactly the same with people. When I grew up, I just assumed as a child that everyone was like me. Part of what growing up is is realizing how that’s just not the case. And loving people for their differences is really important.
Guernica: You describe how both your father, who was a photographer, and Mabel taught you how to “see.” How different were their techniques?
Helen Macdonald: With Mabel it was much more visceral. It was about running yourself into hedges and getting covered in blood. When Mabel caught animals, I’d have to run in, because goshawks just start eating what they catch—they don’t dispatch them cleanly—so I’d have to put these poor things out of their misery, and that was a moment where I not only had become part of this visceral, natural drama, but I was responsible for a death in a way, even though I was just watching. That was a different way of seeing the world. That was what the hawk taught me. It was to do with being accountable, responsible, for very serious things, and I had shied away from that before. I preferred to watch than be involved. With my dad, when I was younger, it was distance watching. My dad used to worry that he didn’t really experience life; he watched it from a viewfinder.
Guernica: How do you find New York City for bird watching?
Helen Macdonald: You’ve got so many sparrows here, I’m envious—they’ve all gone from London! I’ve been watching cock sparrows chirping and squirming into lots of holes and finding nests and it’s been great. There’s a little bird watcher still there in me.
Guernica: Have you had any pets since Mabel?
Helen Macdonald: I have a parrot now. It’s emotionally much more healthy than a hawk: it talks.
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