Journey with a hawk is an escape from grief

2015-11-04 06:00
Helen Macdonald is the author of ‘H is for Hawk’, winner of the 2014 Costa Book of the Year award. PHOTO: file

Helen Macdonald is the author of ‘H is for Hawk’, winner of the 2014 Costa Book of the Year award. PHOTO: file

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AS a child, Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer.

She learnt the terminology and read all the classic books, including T. H. White’s classic The Goshawk, which describes his struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest.

But until the death of her father, Alisdair Macdonald, a respected photojournalist who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2007, she never imagined that she would train a Goshawk of her own.

Knocked sideways by grief, she bought Mabel for £800 (R16 799) on a Scottish quayside and took her home to Cambridge, filled the freezer with hawk food and embarked on the long business of trying to train this wildest of animals.

That journey lies at the heart of her book H is for Hawk, winner of the 2014 Costa Book of the Year award and the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

“It was really hard to do,” said the author, who recently visited Cape Town and Johannesburg as part of a book tour to promote H is for Hawk.

“Working with birds is something I have done all my life but I didn’t want to train a Goshawk because they have a reputation for being really highly strung. But it turned out to be a really good escape from my grief.

“To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own.

“As the days passed and I put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, my humanity was burning away. My world shrunk to just a space with the hawk.”

As Macdonald — an affiliated research scholar at the University of Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science — worked through her grief she began to realise that what she was experiencing would make a good story.

“But it took me a long time to write, about five years,” she said. “When my dad died it was a raw time, so I needed to put some distance between it [the book] and what had happened.

“I think we all go through dark times but we don’t often get the chance to talk about it. I am happy that I got that chance.”

Unsurprisingly, Macdonald’s academic work and interest in the relationship between people and animals also ended up in the book.

It is the author’s second visit to South Africa. She previously attended a conference on birds of prey in Johannesburg some 15 years ago and spent some time bird-spotting in the Kruger National Park.

Macdonald, who has also written and narrated radio programmes, and appeared in the BBC Four documentary series Birds Britannia in 2010, has a second book in the pipeline, which she said concerns the relationship between people and the natural world.

“I think it is one of the most important issues we are dealing with at the moment,” she said simply.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is published by Random House Struik.

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