Broken wings: Helen Macdonald on her father's death, and how training a goshawk helped her to find her way home

'The sudden death of a loved one brings a singular kind of pain. You’ve had no time to say goodbye, have built no armour to prepare yourself'

Helen Macdonald
Monday 04 August 2014 00:04 BST
Helen with a gyrfalcon
Helen with a gyrfalcon (Helen MacDonald)

Until the evening that the phone call came, I’d never understood why people say “Are you sitting down?” before they deliver bad news. But then I did.

One minute I was standing with a phone to my ear, the next I was on the floor, my legs buckled beneath me, white-hot and scalded with shock, listening to the distant voice of my mother telling me that my father had died.

A few hours before the phone call he’d been out taking news photographs of storm-damaged buildings in Battersea when he’d suffered a massive heart attack. There’d been no warning, no illness, no sense of impending trouble. He had seemed fine. And then he was gone.

The sudden death of a loved one brings a singular kind of pain. You’ve had no time to say goodbye, have built no armour to prepare yourself for it, have no tools to comprehend the reality of what has happened. In an instant the world is an alien place and you have no purchase on it at all.

The physical sensations of grief are bewildering. Sometimes it feels like vertigo, a perpetual free-fall turning your stomach inside out. Sometimes it feels as if you’re made of burning metal. Mostly it feels like a thing with a million teeth and claws tearing away at you inside.

My mother and brother and I clung together after he died, but when the funeral was over I had to go back to Cambridge and try to resume my life. It was impossibly hard. As a historian I’m accustomed to solving problems with books. So I bought scores of guides to bereavement.

They told me that grief goes through stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Reading this baffled me, because I was feeling nearly all of those things in a single day or a single hour, and in no particular order. These books had no answers. They were no help at all. I couldn’t bear this empty new world. I wanted to run away. I hit upon an improbably strange way of doing so.

A couple of months after Dad died, I started dreaming of goshawks: Britain’s wildest, most formidable and elusive bird of prey. I’d been a falconer for many years, but had never trained a goshawk. They were huge, baleful killers, too highly-strung and psychopathic for my liking.

But I started dreaming of them all the same. I was helplessly in their thrall. I knew what I had to do. It felt like I had no choice. I emailed a hawk breeder and asked if he had any goshawks for sale.

Three weeks later, on a Scottish quayside on an early August morning, a man opened a cardboard box and brought out a terrifying bird with curved black talons and lambent silver eyes. We checked her ring numbers against the government forms, returned her to the box, and I drove her back to Cambridge to start our new life.

My father had shaped my interest in wild things when I was small, taking me on nature expeditions to local forests, fields and heaths.

After wandering for hours with binoculars and a camera, he’d strew field guides over the dining table and we’d sit and identify all the things that we’d seen and found. Of all animals, birds of prey were my particular obsession. When I was seven I told my father I was going to be a falconer when I grew up. It seemed an odd ambition for a child, but I knew he understood because he was an obsessive, too.

Helen as a child with her father (Helen MacDonald)

He’d been a plane spotter as a boy, cycling from his home in Shepherd’s Bush to local aerodromes where he’d stand for hours staring at the sky. I still have his spotting notebooks: thousands of careful records of aircraft sightings illustrated with black and white snaps taken on his Box Brownie camera. His love of aircraft never went away.

“I’m an anorak,” he’d say, happily, staring at his collection of hundreds of aviation books. “Yeah, Dad, I know you are,” I’d say. “And you made me into one, too,” because my bedroom was packed with bird books, and we’d swap conspiratorial grins.

But training this hawk, who I’d named Mabel, was more than a simple return to a childhood obsession. I was partly inspired by T H White’s book The Goshawk, a classic piece of nature writing by a man who quit his former life as a schoolteacher to live in isolation with a hawk.

Struggling with his sexuality and the scars of an abusive childhood, White’s goshawk let him escape the strictures of 1930s society. I’d hated his book as a child. He didn’t have much of a clue about how to train a hawk, and the male goshawk he called Gos suffered terribly in the process.

Though White’s demons were different to mine, and I was confident in my hawk-training abilities, he was an unconscious model for me. I too was broken and wanted to escape.

The hawk was everything I wanted to be: self-possessed, solitary, free from hurt and loss. Humans have kept hawks for thousands of years, but unlike other animals with such a long history in human culture, they have never been domesticated. They must always be tamed from scratch. It's made them an abiding, powerful symbol of wildness, and wildness was what I wanted.

The taming of my hawk began in darkened rooms, with our first measures of tentative trust earned by giving her raw steak to eat in my gloved left hand. The intricate steps of her training were deeply distracting. They helped me forget my grief. Soon I was taking the hawk for long walks to accustom her to the bustle of human life.

Small boys shouted “Harry Potter!” at us; teen Goths eyed her with awe. Her first flying lessons were on college lawns. She flew free for the first time on fields outside the city and there she learned to hunt just like a wild hawk. And every night she slept on her perch in the living room, preening her feathers in the light of the television screen.

The following weeks and months taught me to see the world through wilder eyes. The hawk’s beauty and predatory grace were bewitching. Some days the wind caught her wings as she slewed across the hillside in rips and flaps of shadow and gilded light.

Others were cold, foggy days of white air and aching bones, ice underfoot. Flying for hours every day, Mabel became an accomplished hunter. I became a feral creature, muddy, covered in briar-scratches, living a kind of neolithic existence, sharing with her the pheasants and rabbits she caught.

What I’d desired had come to pass: I’d spent so much time with my hawk that I’d become half-hawk myself: inhuman, impervious to the loss of my father. Or so I thought. But the grief I’d tried so hard to hold at bay began to bleed through. Slowly, unknowingly, I sank into a very deep depression. I was so hawkish then that I didn’t recognise it for what it was.

Out in the fields with the hawk everything seemed simple. But back at home things were increasingly grim. The world became more incomprehensible, harder to hold. I struggled to rouse myself from bed, muscles and joints burning with pain. I told myself it was an allergy. That it was some kind of virus. The pain got worse. I started to believe I had some kind of terminal disease.

It was hard to get up at all, except to stumble outside and fly the hawk. I ignored my friends, barricaded the door, didn’t answer the phone. I had made myself as wild, as strange, and as antithetical to human society as my hawk. And it had brought me to within an inch of cracking up. It couldn’t go on.

It didn’t. One bright November morning I stood at the lectern at St Bride’s in Fleet Street and gave a memorial address for my father, facing a congregation of people who’d known and loved him. And I experienced a quiet revelation. It dawned on me for the first time what a terrible mistake I’d made. I’d thought that to cope with my father’s death, I should flee to the wild.

For my model of how to cope with loss didn’t come from self-help books at all. It had come from the books on nature I’d been reading all my life: books such as The Snow Geese by William Fiennes, Nature Cure by Richard Mabey; The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen; works by people who, in the throes of loss, depression or sadness, had sought solace in the natural world.

Some had gone on quests to seek rare animals; others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens. Some sought wildness at a distance, others closer to home. “Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,” wrote the American author Edward Abbey. “Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.”

I’d gone far too far into the wild. There was no balance in what I had done. It had half-killed me before I’d come to realise that humans are more like rabbits than birds of prey. That human hands are for other human hands to hold; they should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.

And now I began to understand, too, that I had seen in the hawk all the things that I had refused to see in myself: my fear of human contact, my desire for flight and escape – and all the murderous rage that the books had told me was one of the five stages of grief.

I had used the bird as my mirror. It was a sobering, guilt-inducing realisation. It’s so easy for us to see nature, to see animals, as mirrors of our own needs. I knew now that I needed help.

I went to the doctor. I started taking anti- depressants, began to sleep again, forced myself to visit friends that for months I’d ignored. Slowly the world became brighter. Though I kept flying the hawk, things had changed. I knew the hawk’s life and my life were not the same, and part of me was amazed that I ever thought they were.

Though I missed him terribly, now I could think of my father with sadness and love, rather than overwhelming grief. The rest of the season hastened past in a blaze of winter light, with beating heart and wings. I knew that all would be well. I’d been into the dark and returned, the hawk by my side. We had grown together, oddly, fiercely. What the hawk brought was knowledge that our lives are works of love and wildness reconciled.

And now? I don’t recommend training a goshawk as a way of coping with grief. But looking back on that long, strange year, I see that it was my time with the hawk that taught me how to live, and helped me find my way home.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald (£14.99, Jonathan Cape) is out now. Helen will be in conversation with Tim Dee at the London Review bookshop on 8 August at 7pm

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