'H Is for Hawk': How a fierce bird helped a writer tame her grief

'H Is for Hawk' author Helen Macdonald talks about the predator who helped bring her back from the wild.

Marzena Pogorzaly
Helen Macdonald says that when she lost her father, 'I couldn’t tame my grief, but I knew I could tame a hawk.'

When naturalist, author, and historian Helen Macdonald lost her father, she found an unusual outlet for her grief. Inspired in part by British author T. H. White, she adopted and trained a goshawk – a particularly fierce predatory bird. H Is for Hawk, Macdonald’s memoir about her time with Mabel, is set against the English countryside and is a work both poetic and insightful.

Macdonald recently answered questions from Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe about her life with Mabel, the goshawk who is the star of "H Is for Hawk."

Q. What did you learn from life with a goshawk?

I learned first how to use a hawk to distract myself from the raw realities of grief. A friend told me that when he had a bout of fever he’d press his hand hard to his forehead and concentrate on the sensation to block out everything else. The hawk was that hand on my forehead. Taming and training her was fantastically absorbing. When she flew free and hunted prey just like a wild bird I flew with her in spirit and felt I had left the human world behind.

But I learned, slowly, that running to the wild is not a solution to great hurts, and that I had to find my way back to a more balanced place. The hawk accompanied me through a time of great darkness, and ultimately taught me that we must learn to balance the wildness inside ourselves with our humanity.

Q. Could another animal – a dog or cat or even a gentler bird – have done the same or did it have to be a goshawk?

It had to be a goshawk. I was powerless in the face of an unconscious compulsion to train one. Unlike a dog or cat or parrot, it had to be tamed. I couldn’t tame my grief, but I knew I could tame a hawk. The goshawk’s wildness and solitary nature, its lack of human emotion – these were things I also desired.  And of course the writer T.H. White had written a book that recorded his own attempt to escape from an unbearable life by training a goshawk.  Part of me, I think, was following his example. 

Q. Why were you so drawn to T.H. White's account of life with a goshawk – a book that is in many ways a very sad story? 

I’d read "The Goshawk" as a child and it had baffled me. I didn’t understand why anyone would write about training a hawk when they didn’t know how to do it.  I was confused by White’s actions, and I felt very sorry for his hawk. White treated Gos as harshly as he had been treated as a child by his parents and schoolmasters. Much later I realized that the great poignancy of the book was that White saw Gos as a mirror of himself – as a confused, feral and sadistic creature – and fought to civilize himself by training the hawk. It was always going to end in tragedy, but like all tragedies it is an incredibly compelling story. 

Q. Is there a danger in looking to animals or even the wild to teach us human lessons?

We use nature as a mirror of ourselves all the time, just as White did. I think it is dangerous to use what animals do to prove the rightness of human concepts or actions. You can be impressed with hawks’ ability to slay creatures weaker than themselves but you can’t take this as a model for how humans should behave to each other.

The great lesson that the hawk taught me is that although we can communicate with wild animals and in my case share our lives with them, they are resolutely not us. To understand the otherness of other lives seems to me a way of truly learning what it is to be human. 

Q. Is your relationship with Mabel still evolving?

Alas poor Mabel died two years ago, very suddenly, of a horrible airborne fungal disease called acute aspergillosis. I miss her terribly. I think my book is a way of thanking her, of saying goodbye to her, just as it is a way to thank and say goodbye to my father. 

Q. What do you think your father would have said/thought about the way you coped with your grief?

A difficult question to answer. I suspect he would have quietly let me do exactly what I did – run away with a hawk to experience a period of near-madness before finding my way back into the world, just as my mother and brother had let me. He was a wise and gentle man, and he understood that we are all singular people, and must find our own individual ways to cope with times of difficulty. 

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