Writers and Company

Helen Macdonald on grief, dreams and birds of prey

In this conversation from 2015, Eleanor talks to Helen Macdonald, who chronicled how she dealt with the sudden loss of her father by training a goshawk in H Is for Hawk.
British naturalist Helen Macdonald found solace in falconry after the sudden passing of her father. (Penguin Canada)

Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2014, becoming the first memoir to receive Britain's top nonfiction award. Soon after, it won the £25,000 (approx. $44,000 Cdn) Costa Book of the Year award. It was on many "best books of the year" lists for 2014 and when it was published in the United States, the New York Times named it one of the top 10 titles of the year.

H Is for Hawk chronicles how, after the sudden death of her father in 2007, Macdonald retreated to a small house in Cambridge, England, and decided to train a goshawk — the fiercest, wildest bird of prey. As their relationship develops, Macdonald begins to take on the bird's attributes and see the world through its eyes.

Macdonald spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from London, England. This interview originally aired on March 15, 2015.

On her lifelong fascination with birds of prey

When I was really tiny, I remember dreaming of birds. It started with just birds in general, and then I got one of those Ladybird books about British birds of prey. It was a book for very small children with very large type and beautiful colour illustrations of hawks. I was absolutely transfixed with them. Hawks have never been scary to me. I don't know why, but there's a strange kinship there that prevents me from feeling that fear. 

Keeping grief at bay, almost

The hawk was all-encompassing and fascinating. Everything I did had to be very careful — I didn't want to put a foot out of place and upset or frighten her. So I didn't have to think about anything else, like who I was or what was going to happen next. I started to live in a kind of eternal present. My world veered between exultation when the hawk was happy, and absolute black despair when things were going wrong. 

Of course, the despair wasn't really about the hawk. It was a sense of being broken that I was just about holding at bay. But it was there, and at any point, the tissue paper would break and the tears would come.

Dreams of death and goshawks

After my father's death, I started dreaming of goshawks all the time. I dreamt of one in particular, a huge, dusty adult female that had been handed in to a bird of prey centre that I'd worked at many years before. She was terrifying, all muscled and really other, like a dinosaur or something. When we let her go, she just disappeared into the air. That was what I kept dreaming about — that moment where this bird slipped through the air into nothingness. It took me a long time to understand what that might mean, that I was trying to follow that hawk. Because my father's death was so sudden that I thought he must just be somewhere else. And maybe I could fly with a hawk and get him back.

Helen Macdonald's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to end the broadcast interview: "Juve & Fandor" composed and performed by Amiina.