Ahead of her new BBC2 documentary H is for Hawk – a New Chapter, author Helen Macdonald explains how the death of her father led to an obsession with training a notoriously difficult to tame goshawk.
Ten years ago my father, the renowned photo-journalist Alisdair Macdonald, had a heart attack while out on a photo assignment on a London street. His sudden, unexpected death at the age of 67 left me and my family reeling.
Everyone has different ways to cope with grief, but mine was hugely eccentric. I didn’t turn to drink, find solace in religion, or see a therapist. Instead I felt compelled to train a hawk. Not just any hawk, but a goshawk, one of the most hard to tame of all birds of prey.
I’d been a falconer for many years, but I’d never before wanted anything to do with goshawks. They had a reputation as moody, unpredictable, highly-strung and murderous creatures, more like leopards than birds. Something about their wildness chimed with the wildness of grief inside my heart. And while I knew I couldn’t tame grief, I knew I could tame a hawk.
So one August morning I picked up a ten-week-old female goshawk from a hawk breeder called Andy on a Scottish quayside. I drove her home, called her Mabel, and began the delicate process of winning her trust. It turned out to be the beginning of the strangest, darkest and most beautiful episodes of my life.
Growing up, I’d always loved birds, birds of prey most of all. I was as obsessed with birdwatching back then as my father had been with planes-spotting when he was small.
We gloried in how uncool our interests were. I always carried a pair of binoculars, he always carried a camera, and we were always watching the skies. We’d go out for long nature walks, turning over rocks to find snakes and bugs, collecting things to be identified back home. Dad taught me to see all the beauties of the natural world.
But he taught me much more. He was a patient, quiet, kind, gentle man. Those were the qualities I needed to tame and train my hawk. I had to put aside all the chaos and horror of grief in favour of patience, kindness, quietness, gentleness.
Falconry is not about the domination of a wild creature. You can’t menace or mistreat a hawk. You tame them through courtesy, positive reinforcement and gifts of raw meat.
In only a few weeks Mabel went from being a wild creature terrified of me to a playful, tame companion. We developed an incredibly close bond. I taught her to fly to my gloved fist for food, first on a line, and then completely free. I wanted her life to be as close as possible to that of a wild hawk, and flew her for hours every day out on the hillsides near my home. Every night she fell asleep on a perch on my living-room floor.
My life with Mabel made me wilder and wilder. There was no grief in my heart as I flew her, no future or past. Everything fell away. All that was left was the present moment, caught up in her barred wings as they flickered across frosty fields and slopes.
It was an all-consuming and beautiful life, but it wasn’t good for me. I became a muddy, thorn-scratched hermit. Mabel was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from human hurts and grief. Only at my dad’s memorial service did I remember that human hands are for other human hands to hold, that they shouldn’t be reserved solely as perches for hawks.
With the help of family, friends, and a doctor, I found my way back home. I kept flying Mabel, but in a much less obsessive manner. My relationship with her took me to a wilder world and brought me back much changed.
It was an experience that will mark me forever. I don’t regret a single minute. I flew Mabel for several more seasons before a sudden untreatable infection carried her away. I still mourn her loss.
I ended up commemorating her and my dad in the book H Is for Hawk. As I wrote it I didn’t think anyone would read it, but to my surprise and joy it became a bestseller (it also won the 2014 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction).
Now I’ve met readers all over the world who have shared their own stories of loss and wildness with me. They’ve taught me that while grief is the loneliest thing in the world, we all go through it. It’s part of what it means to be human. I treasure the new friends I’ve made after the book’s success, but only wish my dad were here to see it. He was a good friend, a wonderful father.
I still miss him to bits.