In Conversation with ‘H Is for Hawk’ Author Helen Macdonald

In 2007, writer and falconer Helen Macdonald lost her father suddenly and tragically to a heart attack. The two were close, and in order to find a way through her grief, she retreated to a childhood passion for falconry. Helen adopted a goshawk, a notoriously difficult bird to tame, and over the course of many months, trained her to become an obedient hunter. She wrote about the experience in her best-selling 2014 book H is for Hawk.

Now, ten years later, Helen’s experience training a new goshawk is the subject of the NATURE episode H is for Hawk: A New Chapter, which premieres Nov 1 at 8pm ET on PBS. Fred Kaufman, NATURE’s executive producer, interviewed Helen about the film at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles early this summer.

You can listen to the audio of the interview above or read the transcript that follows.

FRED: Helen, it’s an honor to have you as part of the NATURE series with this incredible film H is for Hawk: A New Chapter. For the viewer out there, tell us what this story is about.

HELEN: It’s the story of how I trained a goshawk and also about the home life of a family of wild goshawks in a British wood, and those two stories are kind of woven together. It’s a very emotional film. I think it’s a very beautiful film and I’m so proud to have done it with you guys.

FRED: Why is it emotional?

HELEN: About a decade ago my dear father died very suddenly and I decided I was going to cope with this loss by training a goshawk. It’s not a way of dealing with bereavement that I recommend to people. But I thought it would be a distraction and it was and it was a very intense experience. I lived with this bird called Mabel for a long time and I went kind of feral. I flew her every day and watched her soaring across hillsides and kind of fell off the human world for a bit. And then much later, wrote a book about it that did really well, called H is for Hawk. And time went past and my life became interviews and like talks and lectures and traveling and part of me was like I don’t have a hawk anymore and they’re kind of who I am. So, training a hawk again and taming a hawk again and living with a hawk again was, it was a miraculous thing to do but it was also very strange in terms of my own emotions.

FRED: So, for our film, you get a new hawk. And you train the hawk, a goshawk, and people may not have even heard of the word goshawk. Why a goshawk, and how is that different from other hawks, for example, red-tail hawks?

HELEN: Yeah, well, one way of saying it would be to say they’re really bad-ass — It sounds weird with an English accent, doesn’t it?  But so most of the hawks you see around are red-tailed hawks. They’re kind of like the pick-up trucks of the bird world, they’re very steady kind of, generalist birds. Goshawks are really weird, they’re kind of like secretive phantoms, they’re kind of murderous, slightly kind of weird, highly strung, very difficult to tame. And they’re incredibly predatory so they’re a very hard bird to deal with in falconry. And they’re also exquisitely beautiful. If you watch this film, you’ll see that.

FRED: Where do goshawks live and what do they hunt?

HELEN: They’ll hunt anything. They’re really, really heavily armed birds. They live in deep forest mainly. They’re low-level hunters so one of the things that falconers do is they do the jet pilot thing. They use their hands to describe hawks so falcons are the dark winged, long eyed birds that fly very high, they’re like fighter jets. And goshawks are sort of low-level killers so if you’re in a woods where there are goshawks, it’s very unlikely you’ll see them. They might just be a flash of wings that speeds past and they’ll hunt anything from mice right up to small deer. They’re super powerful birds.

FRED: I talk about nature as not only inspiring us, but comforting us, which was obviously true in your case. But unlike a dog or a cat that’s cuddly and warm, hawks and raptors, they just look like emotionless killers. It’s as if they don’t have a personality, they don’t seem to be particularly bonded to you, there isn’t that sort of emotional or physical attachment. So, how did that help you get through the grieving process?

HELEN: Well, partly that was the reason that hawks drew me. They were all the things I wanted to be at that point. They were solitary, they were self-possessed, they were kind of powerful, they didn’t need anyone or anything and that was really what I wanted to be at the time when I was grieving. But having said that, I discovered that you can build an incredibly strong bond with a goshawk. So, Mabel and I were friends, we really were friends and when we went out together, she’d just follow me around like a dog and then it ended up with this weird situation where I discovered I could play with her. I would throw her paper balls and she’d catch them in her beak and throw them back to me, you know, she was really affectionate. She was really friendly.

The thing about hawks is they’re not social animals like dogs or horses, for example. They’re very solitary and I think that’s kind of a really important part of that. Despite the fact they’re solitary, they’re also lovable and they can have these very, very intense, strong relationships with individual people.

FRED: I love what you said in the book and in the film about naming a hawk.

HELEN: Yeah, there’s a tradition in falconry that if you give a hawk a really fierce name like Slayer or Killer it will sit on a fence post and squeak at you and do nothing. If you give it a cutesy name, it’ll become a proficient flyer and hunter. So I have a friend with a goshawk called Bunty and another friend with a goshawk called Babydoll but even he thinks that’s a bit much and calls her BD for short. So, yeah, you give them cutesy names.

FRED: How did making of the film and reliving the story and having a new hawk to train and sort of the pressures of filming and recounting the passages from your book, how, was that a good experience for you? Did you enjoy reliving it? Was it stressful? How did you react to all of that?

HELEN: It was good and stressful. Training a goshawk is a very stressful experience psychologically, you know, you put everything that you are on the line to try and win this bird’s trust. And it’s a difficult thing to do. When you have a camera crew in the room it’s even more difficult. So, but we did it. I think we got shots and we got sequences that I didn’t think have ever been filmed before so that was really intense. There were a couple of times when I did this film that I thought “this is really hard,” and that was because the last time I trained a goshawk was after my father died and quite often I’d finish a day’s filming and go back and sleep and then I’d dream of my dad. So, it was tough emotionally like that. But also it was a much more convivial and social experience than my last time with a hawk. I had all these great guys and people around me and there was a lot of laughter, a lot of cakes were eaten. Yeah, it was wonderful. I miss the crew hugely, they became family.

FRED: Well, it is a remarkable film. It’s very special, I love your writing, I love your voice in this film not just the quality of your voice but the things you’re saying. And I really do, I found it to be profound. It made me think about nature and hawks in a very completely different way and it was just beautifully communicated. You did an absolutely wonderful job with it, so proud to have it on NATURE.

HELEN: Well, thank you so much, it’s great to have done it and it’s great to talk to you. Thank you.

FRED: Thank you.