Diggi Palace in Jaipur is no place for birds. A view from the sky will only yield disappointment — colourful shamianas and a sea of humanity — there is not a perch in sight. The only birds who continue to brave the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival are shameless pigeons who relieve themselves on unsuspecting audiences with impunity from a dizzy height. In the midst of the madness, Helen Macdonald, 46, sits in the quieter corner of the press terrace, pulling on her cigarette and eager to talk about hawks.
In the early 1990s, soon after finishing her English degree at Cambridge University, Macdonald found herself in the UAE, flying falcons for sheikhs. “I had heard about a job with an environmental organisation which was trying to promote sustainable falconry. We were captive breeding falcons to lessen the taking of wild birds, which was illegal, but was happening a lot,” says Macdonald. It was a little after the First Gulf War, and Macdonald’s presence in the region amused Bedouin falconers, practitioners of an ancient sporting tradition in the Gulf states. “One of them told me that god chooses who will be a falconer when they are born, that he points out ‘that one, that one, and that one’. This falconer thought it was quite funny that god had pointed at a Surrey schoolgirl and said ‘that one’ too,” she says.
Regardless of divine intervention, very early on in her childhood it was clear to Macdonald that she was a “watcher”, much like her father, Alisdair, a photojournalist — he saw the world through his viewfinder, while she watched the world from a distance as well, mostly turning her face to the sky. When he took her to see hawks for the first time, it was a lesson in patience and fantasy. “The interesting thing about watching birds, for me, is that it always extends your sense of self. When I used to watch birds as a child, I found that if you focus on something hard enough, you start to empathise with it. You see a sparrow scratching its beak and you imagine what that might be like. I used to love that. In my imagination, I could become something else,” she says.
Macdonald returned to Cambridge after her stint in the Middle East and was a research fellow at Jesus College in March 2007, when she received a phone call from her mother — her father was photographing storm-damaged buildings when he suffered a massive heart attack, it was all too quick and sudden. He was gone.
And so begins H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s heartrending memoir of the harrowing year that begins after her father’s death; when, crippled by grief and despair, she buys a goshawk in Scotland, brings it back to her apartment in Cambridge to train and fly it. She had been a falconer for years, she would now become an austringer, a keeper of hawks and eagles. “When you are broken, you run. But you don’t always run away. Sometimes, helplessly, you run towards,” she writes, and it is Mabel, a raptor with marigold eyes, imperial in her fearful symmetry, who becomes her refuge.
She isn’t the first, though, to escape the world and bury herself in training a goshawk. Over 70 years ago, British novelist TH White quit his job as a teacher at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire and retreated to a cottage on the school grounds. He wrote to Germany for a goshawk he unimaginatively, but fondly, named Gos. In the course of training Mabel, Macdonald rediscovers The Goshawk (1951), White’s account of his attempts to train Gos. Almost immediately, her memoir is haunted by his voice, a shadow biography emerges, cleaving H is for Hawk into two narratives, exquisitely held together by the vivid poetry of their language and their shared need to disappear into the wild.
“It’s a memoir about grief, it’s also nature writing, and it talks about White. He was running away from himself, too. I wanted the form of the book to mirror what happens when you’re in deep grief; all the stories you tell about your world are smashed. I wanted the book to start with different strands quite recognisably — chapters on nature writing, grief, literary biography — and then they start to fall apart and get confused with each other, to mimic the confusion that one experiences when you’re grieving,” says Macdonald, who began writing the book nearly five years after her father’s demise.
When it was published in 2014, H is for Hawk won the Costa Book of the Year and the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. The memoir is now being hailed as a future classic of nature writing — something White is likely to have scoffed at. “He would have dismissed me. He loathed women, he didn’t want them to get the vote. But I wrote the book this way because I feel that nature writing has allowed for only one particular kind of voice, that of the straight white male walking around the countryside, going ‘Aren’t you lucky to have me explain this to you’,” says Macdonald. “Our understanding of the natural world is not simply the truths about the way the world is, they are about us. We’re made of stories we are told. Deep down, the book is about how we use nature for our own needs. Since I was born, we’ve lost half of the world’s wildlife and it’s important to understand why we see the natural world the way we do,” she says.
But, historically, there has also been another way to write about nature — poetry. Macdonald’s prose too, echoes William Wordsworth and John Keats, as she grapples with language to fully describe her almost spiritual experience of being with Mabel. “When I was writing it, I kept trying to find words that would describe certain qualities of experience, and all the words that worked were sacred ones, like ‘grace’, ‘epiphanies’. I think ‘joy’ and ‘wonder’ are the watchwords of a correct relationship to the natural world. I think it comes from the Romantic poets, and maybe I’m an old Romantic at heart. Maybe I should wear a white shirt and wander around hillsides,” she says.
In the memoir, the lines that divide Macdonald’s consciousness from Mabel’s begin to blur, and the projection of herself on to the raptor feels natural. But unlike White, who wanted a goshawk because it was “feral, ferocious and free”, Macdonald knows that Mabel would have to hunt in order to be herself. They hunt together, and Macdonald is both hawk and austringer, chasing pheasants and rabbits down the hill, mercy killing Mabel’s prey out of compassion and guilt. “That was hard. I tried to be unflinching about that because it seemed crucial to feel accountable, to feel responsible. I was both the hunter and the hunted. I’m not a bloodthirsty person at all, but watching Mabel kill and eat those animals has taught me to have more compassion for the world around me,” she says.
It would come at a cost. With her sanity coming apart at the seams between her mind and the raptor’s hunting instincts, Macdonald finally admits her depression to a kind psychiatrist who prescribes antidepressants. But it was only at her father’s memorial service that she realised that escaping to nature, the renouncement of the world that is so lauded in poetry and fiction, is a “beguiling but dangerous lie.” “My father and I were really good friends. We saw the world in similar ways, when he died so suddenly, my world was torn apart. People say you get over grief and I think it’s very important that you never get over grief. It’s important that you become a new person who can incorporate that grief within you. What I tried to do with Mabel is become a hawk, because they don’t grieve, they don’t have emotions. But I needed to return to myself and become somebody new. It’s a proper rite of passage. I knew I was depressed but I felt the world was this beautiful but cold place and I was a part of it. But I’d gone way too deep into this imaginary wild,” says Macdonald, who, like Alice, eventually returned to other side of the looking glass.
Macdonald would fly Mabel for another three years before sending her off to a friend’s aviary in the north of England. When he went off for a few days to get married, the goshawk died of Aspergillosis, an air-borne infection, quite suddenly. “I was in pieces, and so was he,” says Macdonald. But Mabel had taught her about companionship, trust and love; she wouldn’t relapse into a solitary cycle of grief. In one of the final chapters, Macdonald writes: “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”