In her best-selling 2015 book “H is for Hawk,” Helen Macdonald wrote about training a goshawk after her father’s death. Now a new Nature special, “H is for Hawk: A New Chapter,” follows Macdonald as she trains a new bird and also observes goshawk chicks in the wild. The show airs Wednesday on PBS stations around the country.
Macdonald (@HelenJMacdonald) joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about the special.
On what makes goshawks special
“They’re just transformative. I describe them at one point, I think, as a cross between a leopard and a dragon. You know, they’re these creatures from myth wrought in, you know, bones and feathers with these staring orange eyes and talons. I mean, they’re as near to a dragon as you can get in in real life. And yeah, as soon as you bring a goshawk into a room, the room stops being a domestic space and becomes somewhere much colder and wilder.”
On going on to train another goshawk as “a new person”
“So people sometimes have read my book and they meet me, and I can see the fear in their eyes as they come up to me as if, you know, I’m this kind of terrifyingly dark and gothic creature. I’m really not like that, you know. I like to think I’m kind of a soft and fluffy creature these days. So one of the things that was interesting about going on to train another goshawk was, you know, I’m this new person. I’m full of sunlight, and, you know, ‘Hello trees, hello sky,’ you know. What was it going to be like to find myself back in the presence of one of these dark, kind of, creatures? And the answer was it was awesome. I think it was a reckoning. So falconry is a really strange dance of trust between you and a wild creature and you develop a relationship slowly over many days and weeks of contact, and Lupin and I sort of came together and we developed this friendship that was of a very, very different kind of tenor than me and Mabel. You know, Mabel and me were like, she felt like part of my soul. I mean, that seems really cheesy now, but — Lupin was very self-possessed. And we had this very mature, sort of, relationship that was like that between two adult colleagues. It was very cool.”
On getting to hold baby goshawks
“I kind of wish everyone could, at some point in their lives, hold a baby goshawk. I know that’s not very likely, but, if you can imagine holding something made of cotton wool that’s all so extremely heavy and full of spiky new feathers. And they turn their heads around to look at you, and they have this amazing, sort of, smelling breath that smells like pepper and hot stone, and they stare right at you. And they look like they’re prehistoric, you know. And the thing that was astonishing is we were banding these birds for science. Then we put them back in their nest, and there was this very poignant, beautiful moment where I realized that no one’s ever going to touch these birds again. In fact, they might not even be seen by human eyes again. For one brief moment, we managed to. Our lives intersected with theirs, it was amazing.”
On naming goshawks
“It’s a great superstition. So among falconers, if you give a hawk a really scary name like, you know, “Vampire” or “Slayer,” it will do nothing but sit on a fence post and wave fluffy feathers and squeak at you. So people tend to give falcons and hawks quite cutesy names. So I called mine Mabel. But Lupin, I think, I was really pleased with this name, it just dropped into my head one day. Because Lupin, obviously, means it’s a kind of flower, but it also means “wolf.” And I think there’s no better name to conjure those two sides of what a goshawk’s like — something which is very predatory and very powerful and wild, but also kind of beautiful and cute at the same time.”
On training Lupin
“The process was very different — not just because it was a new hawk and not just because I was a kind of new person, but because it wasn’t solitary. And it wasn’t solitary partly because my friend was there, but partly also because there was a film crew in the room. And training a goshawk is stressful, but training one with a bunch of cameramen and sound recordists in the room makes it even more stressful. There was one really funny moment where we have one of those microphones that are covered in fluffy material to stop the wind noise, and the goshawk just suddenly saw it and went into full hunting mode thinking it was a rabbit of some kind. So there was this kind of beautiful sense that, here was a very ancient process that was happening — we were training this hawk the way that falconers have trained hawks for, you know, thousands and thousands of years. But there was this extra dimension of warmth and camaraderie and friendship and, you know, and the filming crew.”
On how humans have connected with these animals over time
“For thousands of years, hawks and falcons have been seen as related to the human soul. You know, in Central Asia, there are gravestones with carved images of people on horseback and above them there’s a hawk flying, and that’s their soul. It continues through the shamanic traditions, where the falcon or the hawk is often the communication between the person on the ground and, you know, whatever is above. And I think my time with Mabel, you know, was somehow part of that old story. And, you know, they’re just strangely special animals.”