Yesterday on a perfect autumn afternoon I was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to hear Helen Macdonald talk about her extraordinary book H is for Hawk. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to hear a writer speak about a book at this festival. (Well I can, actually, it was in 2010 when Raj Patel was here to talk about The Value of Nothing, but they are such different books the comparison is kind of meaningless.)
As I sat in the sun waiting for the session, I wondered: what more can Macdonald possibly give of herself and her story because she seems to have poured it all whole into her book, which is part biography (of a hawk, of her photographer father, of writer TH White), part memoir of grief and loss, part love story and part ‘love song’ (Macdonald’s phrase) to the scrubby fields around Cambridge and other English places. But thanks to searching questions from Caroline Baum and a few from the audience at the end, and to Macdonald’s own easy openness and poet’s way with words, she gave so much more.
Here’s what I scribbled during this captivating conversation before a packed room. First up, Macdonald told us she now has a parrot called Birdoole, who’s cuddlier than her goshawk Mabel but attacks her more and flies off with her computer keys.
Baum then asked her what she’d been like before this book, before her father died, before her goshawk Mabel. She said she’d studied English at Cambridge University and then did a Masters of Science because she wanted to work on how people saw the natural world and why they see it the way they do. She was thinking about what she wanted to do next, because she didn’t feel she fitted into Cambridge, and was thinking of becoming a writer. And then out of the blue her father died.
She’s been obsessed with birds her whole life. As a child she’d fold her arms behind her back in bed, attempting to sleep like a bird. She’s worked in the Gulf States, hanging out with Bedouins trapping falcons, working with them to encourage people to trap tame birds not wild ones. She said falconry became an important part of Middle Eastern identity and culture, it’s an Emirate sport, and Bedouins are obsessed with football and falconry. She told funny stories about her surprising affinity with these men from a completely different world, united by their love of birds and the shared language and lore of falconry. They called her Helen of Arabia and told her that in the Muslim world it’s believed that falconers are chosen by Allah at birth, he points them out and declares their destiny. So Allah must have pointed to a small corner of Surrey and said ‘There, that’s a falconer’ when Macdonald was born.
Mabel was the first and only goshawk Macdonald has trained although she had her first kestrel, a falcon, at the age of 12. She said training a goshawk is not about having power over a bird but more like learning to be very polite to something to impress it, so it respects you. I found this such a moving observation, about the practice and power of politeness, and the stories the book tells testify to the extreme care Macdonald took to attend to and care for the bird. It is, overwhelmingly, a love story between a woman and a goshawk. Or, as Macdonald calls Mabel, ’30 ounces of death in a feathered jacket’. ‘I did love her,’ she said.
Apropos of humans’ tendency to anthropomorphise animals, she said that the whole point of her, Mabel, was not for her to become human but for Helen to become hawk. She was trying to make herself a bird, which is the opposite of anthropomorphising. Speaking of the name Mabel, she mentioned the tradition of calling hawks by the softest, cutest names because this goes with the best fliers and hunters, hence Mabel. In the lore of falconry, if a bird’s given a fierce name it usually spends its time roosting on a fence. She said ‘Mabel’ is a great word and it also means love in Latin.
When asked if she’d been inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes she said no, but that she did love his poems, like his wonderful poem about thrushes, because he uncovers the actual animal beneath the accretions we give them. She said she also tries to do that.
She spoke about the delicacy of writing about her father and his death, of her mother’s response to the manuscript. She said that if her mother had been uncomfortable in any way, she would not have published it. When she finished the book she printed it out and sent it to her mother. Her mother read the first few chapters and could read no more. Macdonald waited anxiously for her response, which eventually came several months later. Her mother rang to say that she’d finished it. Her verdict? ‘Don’t change a bloody word.’ How right she was.
And she talked about her father, with whom she had a great affinity and a similar temperament. They spent hours together watching. He loved aeroplanes and was an aeroplane spotter – when a plane flew overhead during the session she said if her father had been there he’d be racing outside to see what it was. His powers of observation made him a great photojournalist. (Among decades of memorable photographs, he took the famous balcony kiss between Princess Diana and Prince Charles on their wedding day.) She told a story about the snobbery and hierarchy of spotters: bird spotters look down on dragonfly spotters; fungus people look down on moss people, moss people look down on liverwort people. Speaking about her solitary watching child self, she said she wasn’t an unhappy child, she just liked to watch, to disappear through watching.
She said you never get over a big loss – and told us never to say ‘you’ll get over it’ to anyone who’s experienced a loss. She said you become a different person, your whole architecture changes, you never get over it. Her father’s death made her realise we’re not here for very long. We’re here and then we’re gone. His death and the hawk’s doing its natural killing each day brought home to her: mortality.
With Mabel she was not trying to control death or have power over killing, as Baum suggested. Her agency was gone. The hawk was the superhero, she was the sidekick. She felt no power over death. She called falconry a willed loss of control, one that involves a lot of preparation, a lot of skill, to get to the moment of loss of control: to have the hawk on a fist and let it go.
Falconry done well is a very enlightened relationship between human and animal. In Shakespeare’s time falconry was like football, everyone used its language and metaphors.
Writing the last sentences of the book Macdonald’s eyes filled with tears. She realised then it was grief work and this was a goodbye. She wrote a lot after her father died, ‘writing the world back into existence’. Her memories were incredibly clear of the time around his death, of the time just before he died and for a year afterwards, the year she flew the hawk. This extreme memory meant she wrote the book all in the present tense, ‘no past, no future, all now now now’. With grief you become hyper-vigilant. The year ramped up her senses, being with the hawk made her see the world in a very complicated way. She didn’t just see a general picture of a landscape as usual. Instead she was attuned to wind direction, cover, animals, she started to get intuitions about the landscape through things the hawk taught her. Like the hawk she was absorbed into the landscape. She was no longer an observer.
She wanted nature to be a place of escape. And it was, but she went too far. But she said ‘The wild can be human work.’ She said she was well – had come out of her deep depression – when she started writing the book. It took her five years to get to be able to write it. She had to wait until she could see herself in the story, as a character: ‘it was really interesting to work with myself as a character’. She wrote the book because she ‘wanted to explain how grief was for me’ – and if that helps anyone (because it’s being used by grief counsellors) then that’s amazing.
The film rights to H is for Hawk have been bought by Lena Headey, Queen Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, which needless to say Macdonald is utterly thrilled about.
When asked about the countryside around Cambridge, Macdonald said it was not conventionally beautiful, it’s flat, scrubby fields. She said she wanted the book to be a kind of plea for wild places. She wanted to take a piece of farmland (an organic farm where she flew Mabel) and write of it with love, ‘sing a little bit of a love song to it’.
She’s done this and more.
Helen Macdonald is giving the closing address – On Looking at Nature – of the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival on Sunday night. There are still tickets available. I urge anyone who even half likes animals, words, pieces of farmland and wild places to go.