May 2015

Charlotte Freeman


An Interview with Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald is the author of H is for Hawk, a memoir about training a goshawk in the midst of her enormous grief in the wake of her father's sudden death. The book won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and the 2014 Costa Book of the Year award. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Duff Cooper Prize and longlisted for the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize. It has recently been published in the United States, and because she was on a whirlwind tour of the US and Canada, we did this short interview by e-mail.

I am rarely compelled to interview an author, as I'm sort of old fashioned in my belief that the text should stand on its own merits. But, while I loved this book, I was also driven slightly mad by the anthropocentrism of Macdonald's relationship with her hawk, as well as by her mysterious attraction to T.H. White's hawking memoir, The Goshawk. I found myself stalking around my living room, reading chunks out loud to my sweetheart, and ranting about anthropomorphism.

Anthropocentrism is the central philosophical problem of all thinking and writing about the natural world. The social constructivist lineage of ecological theory would have it that the concepts of "natural" and "wild" are always and only projections of cultural concepts that are mired in historical and social conditions; that is, nature itself is not just all that stuff "out there," but a repository of human meaning from which we cannot extricate ourselves. The older, "naturalist" line of thinking posits that the natural world does indeed exist not only as something "out there," but that those remnants of "unspoiled" wildness and nature should be protected as an important source of that which is good, and right, and beautiful. In this philosophical camp, anthropomorphizing the natural world, especially projecting human feelings and emotions onto animals, is a category error. The wild world exists in its own right, often outside of human experience, and the practice of attempting to detach our projections and stories from that world is a beneficial one because it reminds us that the world is not simply there for our taking, not simply a substrate set out for the pleasure and use of human beings.

Because Macdonald is not only a lifelong falconer, but a historian of science, the anthropocentrism of her book drove me more insane than it might have done otherwise, and it was this topic in particular about which I wanted to interview her. Here are my questions, and her gracious replies:

I'm probably one of the few people who think your decision to take on a project like Mabel in the throes of grief makes perfect sense. I've been through the sudden and unexpected death of the person you thought you couldn't live without -- your reindeer moss is my bank of cosmos behind the Assistant Coroner of Park County, Montana standing in my side garden. And that jittery feeling of needing something to do, something so big that it will get you out of your head -- I thought you portrayed it perfectly in the book. I can hardly think of a better metaphor for grief than bringing a wild animal into your living room. But in Mabel you created more than a metaphor, you created a fully realized animal character who is absolutely individual.

Which is why, as someone whose background is in nature writing, I was taken aback by the anthropocentric nature of some of the descriptions of hawks and hawking. On a number of occasions, you refer to goshawks as "psychopathic" or "murderous," ascribing motivation that's entirely human. As much as I'd like to have read these as ironic, I couldn't always tell if that was the meaning you were ascribing.

When I call goshawks "murderous" and "psychopathic" early in the book, I'm apostrophizing the words of others, words drawn from falconry books or remembered conversations. The reason I was drawn to a goshawk in those dark days following my father's death was partly because of those ascriptions: in my broken state, full of unacknowledged rage, these human meanings given to goshawks struck a chord with my own mental state. The narrator of the book, the woman that was me, is not very clear-sighted for much of the time. She doesn't understand a lot of things. As the book goes on she works things out, slowly. By the end of the book she reaches new conclusions about our place in the world and our relationship to the wild that I still hold. I tried to capture that sense that I was working things out in the narrative.

Historically there's such a problematic conflation of "wild" and "savage" (thank you, Tennyson), and while Mabel is clearly an individual hawk, not a type, even once she's trained, and you're taking her out to hunt, you say you're going to "let slip havoc and murder." Why "murder"?

Anthropomorphism is, in a very deep sense, what the book is about. One of its major themes is how we unconsciously use nature as a mirror of ourselves and our own needs. My time with the goshawk was an example of this writ large, and throughout the book I show the confusion I felt that year between my own identity and that of the hawk. That moment when I "let slip havoc and murder" is the first time Mabel flies from my fist to hunt. I was in the throes of intense grief, having returned to my mother's house for the first time since my father's funeral. I fled from her house to the fields with the hawk. She wanted to hunt, hawkishly. But my motives were more problematic. I tried to capture what was going on in the bones of that sentence: letting slip is a falconry term (meaning "to release the hawk") but also a psychological one -- Freudian slips, and so on -- and I was revealing something I'd previously obscured: in this case, my grief-spurred rage. The "and" is important too, separating the "havoc" which is Old English for "hawk" and the "murder," which was all mine. That sentence is the book in miniature; in its structuring it seeks to question our anthropomorphic ascriptions of human motives to animal lives.

Later, discussing T. H. White's The Goshawk in relation to J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, you assert that "wild things are made from human histories." Perhaps it's because I live in the midst of one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower forty-eight, but I'd argue exactly the opposite -- wild things are wild things. They exist without us -- we might project all over them (and living just outside of Yellowstone, let me tell you, we're awash in wolf-watchers all winter, projecting all over the wolves), but they are their own thing.

On the one hand, I love the way you maintain Mabel's identity as entirely other, not a social or domesticated animal the way our pets are, and yet there is this almost utilitarian strain throughout in which animals seem to exist for humans, not alongside them. (Which also seems to crop up in the way you forgive White for ruining not one but two goshawks. I am not quite there yet, myself.) As a historian of science, and a naturalist, can you expand a little bit on your assertion that "wild things are made from human histories"?

Absolutely. I'm very envious of your living where you do! That part of the book where I say, "wild things are made of human histories": the myths I'd previously believed are cracking under pressure. I'm starting to see that what hawks are, in my mind, is bound up with how humans have perceived and used them, both symbolically and materially. And that many of the ways we have seen goshawks are dark stories that naturalize human power and violence. But wild things are, as you say, wild things in and of themselves. Late in the book I talk of the quiet joy of attaining the hard-won understanding that hawks should be treasured because they are not human, that "they have nothing to do with us at all."

As for White, I felt compassionate towards him. He did not have any of the tools to know how to care for things, be they people, goshawks, himself. He had no good model of how to do that. I wanted to understand why he treated his hawks the way he did. I don't forgive him his treatment of Gos and Cully. But I came to recognize why things happened as they did. The tragedies of his lost and dead hawks seem to me an instructive thing.

General familiarity with the natural world, much less wild animals like goshawks, has plummeted in recent decades. What's the most surprising question you've been asked by someone who isn't familiar with the natural world?

I've had very few questions that surprised me. I've been asked a number of times how you train hawks to retrieve their prey to you. The answer is that they don't! And people are often astonished by how light Mabel was, despite her size. I think people generally think birds are heavy, like chickens bred for the table. Mabel was huge, but only weighed about two pounds: her lightness tied to her astonishing flying ability.

The hunting stuff was fascinating from a US point of view -- for one thing, driving or beating game toward a hunter is totally illegal in most states, and while pheasant farms exist, they're hardly the norm. Do US falconers/austringers normally beat game toward their birds? Or is that a European/UK thing?

Falconers never drive or beat game in this way -- that is, they don't emulate the kind of English shooting culture that involves the driving of large numbers of birds towards stationary guns. I use the term in a different sense: when Mabel thought there was a pheasant or a rabbit deep in cover, I'd beat (tap, rather than thrash!) the bush or hedge with a stick to try and get it to move into view. Often it wouldn't budge and I'd walk on. There's a wider observation here -- falconry is never about the numbers of animals a hawk catches. It is about the privilege of having a close relationship with a hawk and watching it fly free and exhibit its natural hunting behavior.

I loved that you opened the book with the meditation on the Breckland and how wildness is so often found in landscapes we wouldn't think of as wilderness in the big-r Romantic sense. You seem to be continuing to explore this in the pieces you've been writing for The New York Times Magazine the past few weeks -- the one about the falcons in the power plant, or the nature preserve. One of the things I loved in this book is how hopeful it is about the idea that the natural world, even in its damaged state, is entirely worth engaging with. Where are you going next with this -- and just to throw a typical interview question in -- any thoughts about the future of nature writing (or how to bring it back to life)?

I think it's crucial we engage with it. If we have no direct experience of the animals and plants and fungi around us, we won't care about them. If we don't care about them, they'll quietly disappear. More and more we are interacting with damaged or impoverished ecosystems -- and this is a difficulty. It's true you can get a sense of the transporting power of the natural world in unlikely places. You can say, look at the line of trees behind the mall and rejoice in the unexpected life they support. But though a line of urban trees or a single falcon on an industrial chimney can be transporting experiences for the individual, they are far from rich, functioning, complex ecosystems. In English nature writing in particular, there's a sense that damaged, semi-urban nature is being fetishized, and that is a fascinating and slightly worrying trend. But we should always hope. And it's always better to look at what is there than ignore it all.

As for where nature writing is going? I honestly don't know. But I hope and pray that it will become freer and more inclusive, and involve a much greater diversity of voices -- works from more people of color, from more women, and from previously marginalized, non-elite rural cultures.