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

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - NEWS - Kathryn Knight

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

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