tamıng How a HAWK tamed my grief
Helen Macdonald turned her unorthodox way of dealing with her father’s death into a bestseller. Now it’s coming to the BBC
Few of us know how grief will exert its grip, but for Helen Macdonald the response was profound. When the historian, naturalist and research scholar at Cambridge university unexpectedly lost her beloved father ten years ago, all she wanted was ‘to retreat from humanity’. Helen also seized upon another, more unorthodox prescription for her grief: she would raise and train a young goshawk, among the wildest of all birds.
Her year-long endeavour to train Mabel, as she called her, became the subject of the memoir H Is For Hawk, which shot to the top of the bestseller lists in 2014 and won an array of awards. The book Helen had thought ‘no one would read’ turned her into an in-demand author. ‘When I wrote the book I never thought I would be on a Swedish chat show with Kanye West, Geri Halliwell and Ricky Gervais,’ she laughs now.
Mabel has long since passed away. Helen ‘wept buckets’, she reveals, and, immersed once again in the busy world of academia, it took her many years to decide she was ready to train another goshawk. This time her efforts have been recorded by
BBC cameras, and the result is an enchanting portrait of Helen’s growing bond with a rare, majestic creature. Around Britain there are only around 450 breeding pairs in the wild and few of us will ever clap eyes on one in real life. ‘I think it’s the first time the training of a hawk has ever been filmed in real time,’ Helen says. ‘There’s no trickery, just me doing what needs to be done just as I did with Mabel.’
Much has changed in the intervening decade, however. Helen, 47, admits she’s a very different person from the one left almost deranged with grief by the death from a heart attack of her photojournalist father Alisdair. Exceptionally close, the pair shared a passion for birds. Helen had gone on a falconry course at the age of 13 and Alisdair had given his young daughter a kestrel that slept in her bookcase at night.
Helen received the news of his death on the same day as seeing her first pair of goshawks in the wild, and in her mind the two events became inextricably linked. ‘I knew I couldn’t tame grief but I could tame a goshawk,’ she says now. ‘So I bought this bird for £800 from a breeder and called her Mabel. We lived together for months on end. I became feral, this muddy, thorn-scratched person. It was a rite of passage – I fell off the world with this bird and then found my way back.’
Mabel passed away as Helen finished her book about their time together, dying from a fungal infection. The urge to train another goshawk was always there, however, and last year, after being approached by the BBC to see if she would consider making a documentary, Helen decided the time was right – even if the prospect was also ‘terrifying’. ‘I knew that picking up another goshawk and taming her and teaching her to fly was going to bring back a lot of emotional memories,’ she says. ‘But there’s also the raw stress and responsibility of looking after a new bird like this.’
It’s something that’s brought home in the opening minutes of the documentary when Helen meets her new goshawk, which she names Lupin, for the first time. Twice the size of Mabel, she peers from her cage looking ‘halfdragon, half-leopard’ and it soon emerges she’s a very different character from her predecessor. ‘Mabel was very chilled, while Lupin was more self-possessed,’ says Helen. ‘She had a look that would say, “Yes, I’ll do what you ask – but on my terms.”’
Helen embarked on the process of building Lupin’s trust. In the documentary we watch as, wearing her falconer’s
glove and with Lupin tethered to it, she merely sits and waits for her to retrieve food from the armrest of the chair. Then, using food as bait, Helen gradually lengthens the tether, building up to a point where Lupin will fly off the glove then swoop to take food from her hand. It’s a painstaking process that lasts nearly a month. ‘It takes longer with goshawks than with other birds of prey as they’re naturally so suspicious,’ Helen explains.
This is all working towards the ultimate goal: to set this wild bird free only for it to choose to come back. ‘That moment is everything,’ Helen says. ‘You put them on the perch and try not to look behind you because she might already not be there, then you turn and call and you hear the flapping of wings, and when it comes to you it’s like part of your heart is returning. It’s incredibly emotional.’
The moment is a tear-jerker for the viewer too. It’s also little wonder that throughout filming Helen felt the presence of her father. ‘I’m not into spooks and spirits but I did feel he was sort of around, hovering. There was something about the filming itself too that felt very linked to him – his whole life was cameras, so the presence of cameras was very reassuring.’
Sadly, Helen felt she could not keep Lupin for good. ‘You need to fly them every day and make their life as close to a wild hawk’s as possible,’ she says. ‘I knew the way my life is now I couldn’t live with her forever, so I waved her goodbye. She’s with another falconer now. It’s a bit like a summer romance.’
Yet while Helen may no longer be sharing her life with a goshawk, she still retains an avian presence in her life – in the form of a parrot. ‘My friends say that’s much more emotionally healthy than a hawk, although of course I don’t agree,’ she laughs. Little wonder: for Helen, goshawks are ‘among the most beautiful things the world has ever made. They’ll always be part of who I am, and I’m really glad about that.’ H Is For Hawk: A New Chapter will be shown later this month on BBC2.
Above: Helen puts Lupin through her paces on the show