Helen Macdonald on the Wonderful, Optimistic World of Hawks

Daniel Hautzinger
Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, with her goshawk Lupin. Photo: Courtesy Mike Birkhead Associates
Photo: Courtesy Mike Birkhead Associates

Nature – H is for Hawk: A New Chapter re-airs on Wednesday, December 26 at 8:00 pm and is available to stream.

When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly, she turned to an unusual form of grief-management for solace: training a goshawk. Having been interested in falconry since early childhood, Macdonald had trained hawks before, but never a goshawk, given its reputation for fierce orneriness. Her goshawk Mabel became “a kind of personal guardian angel,” she says, and she affectingly mused upon her time with Mabel during her trying months of depression in the astonishing, award-winning book H is For Hawk.

Now, nearly a decade later, Macdonald decides to train another bird of prey, her first since Mabel died. Nature’s H is for Hawk: A New Chapter chronicles her effort to train Lupin, a goshawk, at her friend’s farm after observing a pair of rare wild goshawks and their chicks in the English forest. “I think this is the first time ever that anybody’s really filmed the moment-to-moment, real-time taming of a hawk,” she says. She spoke to us about how humans give their own meanings to animals, what it's like to hold a wild baby goshawk, and what she’s working on next.

Do goshawks and falconry mean something different to you now than they did after your father died?

“Yeah, absolutely. When I picked up Mabel after my dad died, the thing that drew me towards goshawks was the sense that – I often laugh about this – they’re kind of the Christopher Walkens of the bird world: merciless, psychopathic killers. Having time with Mabel helped me realize that all animals are much more than the meanings we give them. We think goshawks are something like feathered shotguns. Living with Mabel taught me that they’re extremely complicated, idiosyncratic beings, just like people.

Lupin, the goshawk of Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk. Photo: Courtesy Mike Birkhead AssociatesLupin, the first goshawk Helen Macdonald has trained since the death of her first, Mabel. Photo: Courtesy Mike Birkhead Associates

"I used to play games with Mabel with bits of paper scrunched into balls and she would throw them back to me. She was always a lot more than I was given to understand goshawks were. My time with Lupin reminded me even more so that not only do goshawks have this reputation in human culture of being these dark, almost fascistic creatures of violence and power, but actually they’re also small baby birds who are a bit confused by life. Birds that can be frightened by people and need their hands held if they walk forward. It just reminded me that our notion of the natural world is always partial, it’s always about us. We give meanings to these creatures, but they’re actually much more astonishing and special and different than we think.”

What was your goal in making this documentary?

“Many people who don’t know much about falconry think it is this relationship that’s founded on domination of a wild creature. I hope that people who watch the film will see that it’s a relationship that’s built on gentleness. You’re building trust with this wild creature. The whole point of it is that you can loose this wild creature and if she wants to fly over the horizon she can, but she chooses to come back to you. It gives you a little bit of hope about humans and nature. It gives you a sense that not all is lost. That sounds like a big claim, but having these extraordinarily elusive and wild birds decide that they’d rather spend time with you than in deep forest, it’s just an optimistic and deeply privileged thing to experience.”

Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, with her goshawk Lupin. Photo: Courtesy Mike Birkhead AssociatesHawking is "just an optimistic and deeply privileged thing to experience," Macdonald says. Photo: Courtesy Mike Birkhead Associates

What was it like to observe wild goshawks?

“Wild goshawks in England are very shy of people. You see them as kind of a burst of feathers; they’re like phantoms. Being 55 feet up a tree and looking into their family life, it was beautiful. The female goshawk would come in with some poor thing that she’d caught, and she would look like the most terrifying predator, like an avian leopard, and then you’d watch her very gently feeding her young with this extreme care and love. That changed how I felt about wild goshawks. Because I’d spent a lot of time with trained goshawks, and there I saw these wild ones behaving in exactly the same way. They didn’t really seem wild to me, they just seemed like friends I hadn’t met yet.

"But also being at that height in the forest is absolutely astonishing. You do get the feeling that you’re in a separate world than on the ground: it’s a world of wind and movement and scattered light and lots of lichen on tree branches. You feel like you’re in a submersible, like you’ve gone down to a coral reef, but you’ve gone up to this world you never have access to. That was really special.”

And you got to see wild goshawk chicks!

“They don’t really know what they’re doing, their brains are still forming. But holding them, it’s like if you can imagine holding a very dense, heavy wad of cotton wool. It’s got all these spikes coming out of it that are new feathers, and they’re all sinew and bone and fluff. They’re absolutely astonishing creatures. They have these smoky blue eyes and they hiss at you like reptiles. The nearest I can say is it’s a bit like encountering a small, confused dinosaur.”

Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, with a goshawk chick. Photo: Courtesy Mike Birkhead Associates"It’s a bit like encountering a small, confused dinosaur," says Macdonald of goshawk chicks. Photo: Courtesy Mike Birkhead Associates

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book of essays, mostly about the natural world and our relationship to it. I think that’s the most important subject that there is at the moment. We’re living through the sixth great extinction: we need to think very carefully about why and how we value the natural world around us. And then I’m going to work on a big book. It’s going to be about albatrosses and the end of the world, which doesn’t sound that cheerful, but it will have a lot of light and laughter as well as some serious stuff.”

You are more cheerful than I would expect from reading H is for Hawk, given how dark it is.

People sometimes meet me after reading the book and they’re a bit nervous I’m going to be this really gothic, intense person. But that was then, and I was just really sad. But now my life is different. I love the world a lot more; I’m a lot softer as a person.

"I have a parrot now. I like to giggle about this because people say, ‘That’s much more emotionally healthy than a hawk because you can give it cuddles,’ and I laugh and say, ‘I’ve got more scars from this parrot than I ever had from a hawk.’ It’s really fun, when I first stuck the parrot in the car, I thought that he would enjoy looking at the landscape and the trees and the clouds, but it turns out that the parrot is basically a four-year-old, and really likes trucks and motorbikes.

"It’s really fun to experience a different kind of bird, very sociable and intelligent, whereas hawks are very single-minded and solitary, and while they have a very keen tactical intelligence, you can’t really say they’re very brilliant. But I would really like to fly another hawk, and I know it will happen, because part of me really feels that I should always have a hawk in my life.”