Helen Macdonald: ‘I didn’t want to be me, I wanted to be a hawk’

When Helen Macdonald lost her father suddenly she lost herself in training a young goshawk called Mabel, a bird known to be the hardest of the hawks to train. The result was her acclaimed memoir, H is for Hawk

As she perches on the gnarled roots of a Ghaf tree in the desert outside Abu Dhabi, it is easy to draw comparisons with Helen Macdonald and the falcon that is balanced on her wrist. The pair sit together in companionable silence, occasionally regarding each other with a keen interest that for Macdonald began when she was just eight years old.

“All my friends had posters of footballers or ponies on their bedroom walls and I had pictures of hawks,” Macdonald, now 46, explains. “Luckily, my parents were very patient with me. I think only twice did they ask, ‘wouldn’t you rather be a lawyer or a doctor?’”

The budding young falconer turned her dream into reality at the age of 12 with the purchase of her first bird of prey, Amy. The tiny Eurasian kestrel accompanied her to the school playing fields, watched TV with her on the sofa and roosted on her bedroom bookcase at night. 

Amy taught Macdonald “how to be polite” to a bird, and that seeking to dominate her would go against the guiding principles of the sport. 

“A lot of people think [falconry] is about exerting your will over a wild creature, and anyone that’s done it knows that’s not what it’s about. It’s a very equal relationship: the bird is completely free when it flies, and it can decide not to come back to you.”

All my friends had posters of footballers or ponies on their bedroom walls and I had pictures of hawks – luckily, my parents were very patient with me

This relationship proved purgative when, in 2007, Macdonald lost her father suddenly. Unable to work through her grief, she lost herself in the training of Mabel, her goshawk, a bird known to be the hardest of the hawks to train because of their power and finely tuned predatory instinct. The result was her acclaimed memoir, H is for Hawk, a tale of processing loss through a very singular hobby. 

“It’s very weird to explain now, but I didn’t want to be me, I wanted to be a hawk, this solitary, self-possessed creature that was free from hurt and grief and could soar,” she says. “It was a real trip to the underworld and back.

I felt almost inhuman when I flew her, and it was necessary in a way, so I could come back to myself eventually and be at peace with my father’s parting.”

She likens the training process to entering a monastery, involving a withdrawal from the bright, outside world into a darkened room, where sacred offerings consist of lumps of raw steak offered to the frightened bird in an act of benevolence.

“Eventually, the hawk will fly to your fist over short distances and slowly you take it outside and introduce it to people. But by this point, you’re a bit scared of people, too, so both of you go out there thinking, ‘oh, I don’t know about this.’” 

The day you decide the bird is trustworthy enough to fly completely free, says Macdonald, is the moment your heart is in your mouth. A glimmer of hesitancy, of unease – and months of patience and hard work could vanish into the skies. 

Handling Hasheem, a Lanner falcon lent for the day from handlers Ahmed and Saif Al Shafar, involves no such disappearing act.

It’s very weird to explain now, but I didn’t want to be me – I wanted to be a hawk, this solitary, self-possessed creature that was free from hurt and grief and could soar

“When it’s your falcon you have this special relationship with it, and letting someone else handle and fly your bird is a big deal,” remarks Macdonald. “I was honoured that Ahmed and Saif trusted me to handle and fly Hasheem, who was wonderful. There’s definitely a kindred spirit with other falconers, regardless of where you’re from.”

With its chin feathers puffed out – a sign of contentment, remarks Macdonald – the two seem to epitomise a synergy between man and bird that has existed for thousands of years, with the author resolving to return to the sport on her return to the UK. 

“I haven’t the time to have a bird now as I’m always travelling, but today has reminded me that it is going to happen again,” she says. “I’ll be running around a hillside getting all muddy, covered in thorn scratches as I watch it flying above me… it’s an inevitability.”