Excerpt: H is for Hawk

When all hope was lost, Helen Macdonald turned to the wild spirit of the goshawk.

Excerpted from H IS FOR HAWK. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.​ Published March 2015. Copyright © 2014 by Helen Macdonald. All rights reserved.


The conversation of death. 

The sentence kept coming to mind. I’d think of it at odd moments—while taking a bath, scratching my nose, leaning to grab a mug of hot tea. My subconscious was trying to tell me something and though it was shouting very loudly indeed, I didn’t hear what it was saying. Things were going wrong. Very wrong. One afternoon Mabel leapt up from her perch to my fist, lashed out with one foot and buried four talons in my bare right arm. I froze. Blood was dripping on the kitchen floor. I could do nothing. Her grip was too powerful. I had to wait until she decided to let go. The pressure was immense, but the pain, though agonising, was happening to someone else. Why has she footed me? I thought wildly, after she released her grip and continued as if nothing had happened at all. She has never been aggressive before. I was sure I’d done nothing to provoke her. Is she overkeen? Is the weighing machine broken? I spent a good quarter of an hour fussing about with piles of tuppences, trying to calibrate it. There was nothing wrong with it at all. But something was wrong with me. It wasn’t just a hawk-inflicted injury. I was becoming vastly anxious. I jumped in panic when the postman knocked on the door; recoiled from the ringing phone. I stopped seeing people. Cancelled my gallery talk. Deadlocked the front door. Out on the hill I fled from walkers, dodged behind hedges when farm vehicles drove up the track. Some days I lay in bed in so much mysterious pain I began to believe the only explanation was a terminal disease.

You could explain what it was like by running to books and papers. You could read Freud, you could read Klein. You could read any number of theories about attachment and loss and grief. But those kinds of explanations come from a world the hawk wasn’t in. They aren’t any help. They are like explaining how it feels to be in love by waving an MRI scan of a lovestruck brain. You have to look in different places.

The anthropologist Rane Willerslev once lived for a year in a Yukaghir community in north-eastern Siberia and became fascinated by how their hunters saw the relationship between humans and animals. The hunters, he wrote, think ‘humans and animals can turn into each other by temporarily taking on one another’s bodies’. If you want to hunt elk, you dress in elkskins, walk like an elk, take on an elk’s alien consciousness. If you do this, elk will recognise you as one of their own and walk towards you. But, Willerslev explained, Yukaghir hunters consider these transformations very dangerous, because they can make you lose sight of your ‘original species identity and undergo an invisible metamorphosis’. Turning into an animal can imperil the human soul. Willerslev included the story of a hunter who’d been tracking reindeer for many hours and ended up in an unfamiliar camp, where women he did not know gave him lichen to eat and he started forgetting things. He remembered his wife but could not remember her name. Confused, he fell asleep, and it was only when he dreamed he was surrounded by reindeer urging him to leave that he saw what he had done.

That story made me shiver when I read it, because that was what it was like. I’d turned myself into a hawk—taken all the traits of goshawks in the books and made them my own. I was nervous, highly strung, paranoid, prone to fits of terror and rage; I ate greedily or didn’t eat at all; I fled from society, hid from everything; found myself drifting into strange states where I wasn’t certain who or what I was. In hunting with Mabel, day after day, I had assumed – in my imagination, of course, but that was all it could ever be—her alien perspective, her inhuman understanding of the world. It brought something akin to madness, and I did not understand what I had done. When I was small I’d thought turning into a hawk would be a magical thing. What I’d read in The Sword in the Stone encouraged me to think it, too, as a good and instructive thing; a lesson in life for the child who would be king. But now the lesson was killing me. It was not at all the same.


It’s turned cold: cold so that saucers of ice lie in the mud, blank and crazed as antique porcelain. Cold so the hedges are alive with Baltic blackbirds; so cold that each breath hangs like parcelled seafog in the air. The blue sky rings with it, and the bell on Mabel’s tail is dimmed with condensation. Cold, cold, cold. My feet crack the ice in the mud as I trudge uphill. And because the squeaks and grinding harmonics of fracturing ice sound to Mabel like a wounded animal, every step I take is met with a convulsive clench of her toes. Where the world isn’t white with frost, it’s striped green and brown in strong sunlight, so the land is particoloured and snapping backwards to dawn and forwards to dusk. The days, now, are a bare six hours long.

It’s my first day out with Mabel for a week. I’ve been interviewing students for my old college. For four days I’ve sat in front of frightened faces, asking them searching questions while trying to put them at ease. It was hard work. It felt like those fi rst days with Mabel all over again. Now the interviews are over, and today I’ve been seduced by the weather. It is such a beautiful, fi ery day, burning with ice and fi ne prospects, that I cannot imagine not being on the hill. I know my hawk is too high. I also know that after four days of enforced rest, she will be wanting to hunt very much indeed. What’s more, I’ve run out of chicks; Mabel has been eating nothing but quail for a week, and it’s made her a hot-tempered, choleric, Hotspur-on-coke, revenge-tragedy-protagonist goshawk. She is full of giddy nowhere-to-go desire. She foots her perch. She gets cross. She jumps in the bath and out again, and then in again. She glares. "Feed bloody food but three times a week," say the old books. Too much rich food and this is what happens.

Already I can see the mood she’s in, and I suspect if I let her go here, she’ll fly straight to the nearest tree and ignore me. So I take her to the top field. There are no trees up there. If she leaves the fist there’ll be no close perch to fly to—she’ll swing about in mid-air and come back to me. And she does, for a while, but then she starts eyeing the far hedge. I can’t see beyond it. Mabel knows there are pheasants in there; woodpigeons, too, and rabbit-holes along the ditch. She starts that curious autocue parallax-bobbing of her head and makes as if to go. And I let her go. It is stupid of me, but I do.

She flips her wings, glides away and disappears behind the hedge. I am strangely calm. I don’t even run. I amble in a leisurely manner towards it then realise, heart thumping, that I have no idea where she is. The hedge before me is an eight-foot wall of blackthorn needles. It’s impassable. I run up and down looking for passage. There. A gap the size of a porthole between two sturdy branches. I squirm through it, pretending I’m an eel. I’m not. There’s blood on my hands from the thorns on the ground, and the shoulder-strap of my hawking waistcoat hooks around a stubby branch. I’m caught. I try with all my might to keep going. There’s no time to turn and see where it’s snagged. Just brute force to try to release me. The branch snaps, and I ping forwards through the gap to land on my knees and the heels of my hands deep in a wet field of sprouting wheat. Mabel is nowhere to be seen.

I run into the middle of the field and look about. The wheat is pale and rich in the spectacular glare of the winter sun. Downhill is another hedge, and behind that another, and beyond that half an acre of pasture and a pale horse. No Mabel. I stand and listen, hard. No bells. Nothing. I whistle and call. Nothing. I get out the telemetry receiver for the first time. Blip, blip, blip. The signal is strong in all directions. Radiowaves propagate and bounce and confuse. I run around for ages with the aerial trying to get a fix, and eventually conclude that she’s sort of in that direction. I run. Down by the horse field, the ground is still frosted. White dust on hard black earth. Mabel is lost. I feel giddily, terribly alone. It’s not that I am worried about her. She’ll be fine. She’ll rocket around this landscape in high spirits, could live here for years. And just as I think this, a shotgun retort echoes from not far away. Oh Christ, I think. She wouldn’t live long at all. Please don’t let her be shot. Don’t let that noise be someone shooting her. I stand, stricken, and it is then, in the silence that follows the shot, that I hear crows. Angry crows. Thank God. And I follow the noise, and of course, there is Mabel. She’s sitting sun-washed on top of a hedge at the crest of the next hill. She’s blazing with intent. She’s chased something into cover; had seen a pheasant on the next rise and followed it here. I run across the field towards her and peer through the hedge to see where she’s looking. My heart sinks. It’s a jungle of saplings as tall as my shoulders woven together with briars and brambles. Thorns, thorns, thorns. There is no way I can flush the pheasant out of that. She makes little prospecting flights out over the brush, sallies that are slow to the point of stalling, before she returns to her branch, craning her neck behind her. It’s in there, she’s thinking. I can find it. I stand, panting, watching her for a while. We have to leave. This field, and the one beyond it, are not on our land. Even if I could flush that pheasant for her it would be poaching. And we’ve done enough inadvertent poaching to last a lifetime. I call her. She ignores me. So I wait. And slowly, as the minutes pass, her predatory fire cools. Now she has returned to the world I am in. She can see me again. There, she thinks. And she has a whole quail in her fist. From her sunlit perch she descends to the hand I hold out in the shade of a hedge and I feel a surge of indescribable relief. I start shivering, cold and hot all at once.

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, Grove Press, 255 pages, $17.89. Buy it at Barnes & Noble.