Helen Macdonald soars out of dark skies to critical acclaim
Helen Macdonald took refuge in nature following her dad's death, but went 'too far'. Hilary A White met the award-winning author who talked about sexism in nature-writing, retreating from the world and her beloved goshawk
Nature is often lumped with the task of healing the wounded headspace, but never assume you will like the answers it gives you. This was the lesson learned by author Helen Macdonald when grief saw her turn her back on the human world and venture deep into the realm of one of the wild's most enigmatic predators.
For millennia, goshawks have been trained by man for hunting, initially to catch food for the pot, and more recently for sport. The ancient art known as falconry is practised in some 70 countries and is a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage. But when Macdonald, a long-time falconer and naturalist, suffered the loss of her dear father in 2007, training a mercurial, spring-loaded goshawk became a dimension to disappear into.
The episode is recounted in H Is For Hawk, which, since its release last year, has become a publishing phenomenon. After it won the Samuel Johnson Prize (often called "the non-fiction Booker"), its judges spoke of Macdonald's "visionary eye" and "striking prose". Then on Tuesday evening, at a ceremony in London, Macdonald beat bookies' favourite Ali Smith to take the £30,000 Costa Book of the Year award, with judging panel chairman Robert Harris revealing that "several people felt very passionately that it haunted them and they would never forget it". But readers and critics have also been hooked by the bravery and wit of her voice, the fascinating biography of TH White (the troubled author of The Sword In The Stone) which she weaves into her own tale, and some nature writing that is a sensory experience to behold.
"It's freaking me out a bit!" she gasps. "There was a moment about two weeks ago when I went to do a book talk. People were queueing up to get books signed, and some were incredibly nervous and had shaking hands. I was horrified! They didn't see me as a person - they saw me as a placeholder for being a 'writer' or 'author' or some figure that wasn't really me. That threw me into a massive wobble!"
As we sit together in the sunshine, Macdonald looks back on her experience with "Mabel", her Ulster-bred goshawk, as "a real education in living in the moment". "It taught me that this relationship with what is technically very much a wild animal is a way of getting in touch with all sorts of elemental things. I've had a lot of people say to me that the book is a kind of shamanic journey, that sense of flying with a hawk to somewhere else that's not a normal world and then coming back with that hawk. The words 'spiritual journey' are bandied about all the time but that's what it was, that year. I was in a really dark place and the hawk helped me through it." She apologises for the "cheesiness" of the answer with a surge of lusty laughter.
That dark place crystallised in her after the news of the death of her father Alisdair, a photojournalist and "Fleet St institution" (as his Reuters obituary described him) who had been a huge influence and close companion in her bird-mad childhood. The struggle to deal with his passing mingled with nightly dreams about goshawks and a realisation that her life was unanchored by a partner, children, steady work or a permanent home. The all-consuming and hermetic endeavour of training this so-called "ruffian" of the raptor world seemed the perfect existential bolthole.
"There are lots of nature books by people who are suffering from big crises in their lives," the 44-year-old muses. "The great metaphor is that when you are broken, you run to nature and it will heal you, and that view goes right back. But you can go too far and I did. I basically tried not to be a person any more, and I got quite miserable and ended up being really depressed. But I guess the hawk taught me that the landscape is full of lives that aren't human. And despite the fact I was out there hunting with my hawk, it made me feel that everything was much more precious than I thought before. Everything's only here for a very short time and then it's gone."
Born in Surrey, England, the young Macdonald was a self-professed "hawk bore" to her parents. Both were journalists, something which cannot be coincidental given her knack for research and enquiry. She is the kind of polymath that defies the paltry 24 hours that we are given each day of our lives. Before H Is For Hawk, she had published a collection of poetry (2001's hypnotic Shaler's Fish) and a natural history volume called Falcon (2006). She has written radio plays for the BBC, illustrated books and trained and bred falcons for wealthy Arab royalty in the United Arab Emirates. Today, she is merely an affiliate of the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge University, not to mention a touring literary-award magnet.
Besides all this, she is buoyant, hilarious and hearty company. Soft traces of English rural vowels are audible as she riffs on nature and our relationship with it. She tells me about wild bird habitat destruction near her Cambridge home, where displaced partridge can be seen wandering around "baffled" on freshly built housing estates. Elsewhere, she will cite Oxford studies during a chat about the worrying disconnect between today's young people and the outdoors.
Not everyone has been so forthright in their praise of H Is For Hawk, however, something Macdonald can see for what it is. She laughs off a rather snotty review in a major Irish broadsheet last year, but criticism from one group bothered her slightly more.
"The problem I've had mostly," she smiles conspiratorially, "has been with - and I have to be very delicate here because I really respect some of these people - male nature writers. There's a sense that nature is a boys' place and girls aren't really allowed. So there was a lot of discussion from some reviewers about how often I burst into tears in the book, which I found astounding because I was really, really sad at the time. I thought that would be the bit you couldn't really argue with - when you lose someone you love very much, you do that! I think there's a territorial game going on there."
She may come across like your quippy English cousin, but there's a touch of the maverick about Macdonald and her exigence. It's no surprise to learn she was uninterested in yet another expository book about "walking across a landscape" and instead set about throwing a hawk among the nature-writing pigeons.
"I wanted lots of different voices in it," she explains. "I wanted TH White's in it. I wanted it to have the hawk's voice. And I wanted a nature-writing part of it, a grief memoir part of it, and also a kind of more literary side. And I wanted all those things to talk to each other. The fact that it's slightly odd in terms of its genre has been one of the things some people don't get but that others really do."
I remark that the book's open-heart surgery is achingly stark at times and she frowns in agreement, telling me how she kept a journal after Alisdair's funeral in order to "write the world back into existence". Some five years later, she began to structure the whole saga in book form. "I had to turn as unflinching a gaze upon what I was feeling as a hawk would upon quarry," she reasons. "Initially, I tried to be more guarded but it just wouldn't work - the words wouldn't come. But by that stage there was sufficient distance to make the character someone slightly different from me so I could write without feeling I was exposing myself. It was like taking a deep breath and diving under water, writing what it was like to be in that place and then coming back up again."
Mabel, who sadly died of illness in 2013, is sorely missed. "It was a really great time with her as well as a very dark time," she winces. "Everyone who keeps animals says there's always one or two that really stay with you. She was one of those." Thus it's too soon, Macdonald's heart tells her, for another goshawk. "And I also think I'm quite light-hearted and cheerful these days," she adds. "And quite lazy!"
H Is For Hawk is published by Jonathan Cape,€14.99
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