Helen Macdonald started flying birds at 11 years-old with a Kestrel named Amy with whom she stalked grasshoppers. Helen refuses to do the math, but that means she has been a falconer for a bit now. These early years of falconry began in Camberley, Surrey, UK, a countryside haunted by the likes of Philip Glasier and other falconry royalty. These days she teaches science and literary criticism at University of Cambridge. Helen spends her moult sipping tea (admittedly rather British of her) while writing, painting, illustrating and trying to forget that time she nearly ran over Stephen Hawking with her old Renault 5.
1) First question always includes partial disclosure about our relationship. I’ve never met you, but we’ve known each other online for some time. Actually, I’m kind of a stalker. I’m insanely jealous of your breath-taking writing and English wit. I keep hoping you will come to the states so I can steal your identity. (I’ve been working on my accent.) I know you’ve spent some time here. What did you find are the main differences between hunting in the UK and in the States?
But I’m insanely jealous of you too! Here’s to future meetings with tea and tequila respectively! So. Hunting. Such a good question. I’ve always gone on about how tricky that word is: my feeling is that there are as many different kinds of hunting as there are marriages. But here’s a confession. I’ve never shot, or ridden to hounds, or done any of the other kinds of hunting, except maybe a bit of ferreting, and that, too, mostly with hawks. Falconry’s all there’s been. No especial reason other than it was my first love, and it’s enough for me.
Hunting is a fantastically tricky subject in this country. Admitting you hunt is social suicide in most non-rural environments. It seems to me that in the US hunting seems less of an issue. And it also seems a far more egalitarian activity. Here, it’s marked by centuries of social inequality, and much of the ire directed at, say, foxhunting, comes from this. Toffs on horses; deer stalking for the aristocrats and those who can afford to pay. And of course, related to this, we don’t have great stretches of public land on which to hunt. Our hunting landscapes are privately owned, and the average falconer here often struggles to get permission to fly hawks on local farms and estates. This has got much harder over the last few decades, as the number of falconers has increased significantly. Back when I was small, a falconer knocking on your door was a novelty to a farmer. Now I imagine, not so much.
I’m terribly envious of your system in that it allows falconers to fly passage birds. Way back when we were hammering out falconry legislation in this country, we made the decision to license birds, rather than falconers. This meant that in the post-DDT years, when falconry grew massively in popularity and falcons were being nicked from eyries by unscrupulous types, falconry became a bugbear for conservation organisations, and the government slowly withdrew licenses to take birds from the wild. I’d love to fly a passage falcon, but it’s not going to happen. And there are other reasons I wish we’d gone down the Federal US route; in the UK anyone can just go out and buy a golden eagle or a gyrfalcon, and this has obvious knock-on effects in terms of hawk housing and general welfare.
2) You are also a scholar and you teach. Do you find that being a falconer has changed you in any way as a scholar and a professor?
That’s an interesting question. As a scholar, yes. Firstly, being a falconer helped shape my academic interest in the history of human-animal interactions. Secondly, falconry itself is a fascinating topic for historical and philosophical enquiry because it dances around the boundaries of scientific natural history, particularly in the States. Look at the work of Frank and John Craighead, for example, or Fran Hamerstrom, or Tom Cade. Studying the practices and emotional economies of such falconer-scientists sheds light on how the boundaries of what we consider to be “science” are created and policed. Thirdly, on a more technical, historiographical level, falconry is interesting because human interactions with animals are fascinating historical phenomena. It’s become a truism for historians these days to reject the simple notion that past lives, works and deeds were anything like our own. And yet falconry is an extraordinarily robust thing in these terms. Hawks themselves don’t change, in whatever cultural context they’re put, and the ways humans interact with them are constrained by this. You can still use Frederick II’s De arte venandi cum avibus as a falconry text. You can still empathise with the angry court falconer of the sixteenth century who wrote an angry letter to his hawk dealer because the “passage” gyrfalcons he’d bought turned out to be screaming imprints with broken feathers…
In terms of how it’s changed my teaching? Hmm. I wish I could say it’s given me an insight into being patient, or that it’s taught me how to use positive reinforcement to effect change, and so on. It might have done. When I think of falconry and teaching, though, all I can remember was one day four years ago when a morning’s late-season goshawking turned into a wild chase across country —yes, she was far too high — and I turned up horribly late to teach my students. I distributed the poems we were studying, then looked down and noticed my pale corduroy trousers were completely soaked in pheasant blood. It was a bad moment.
3) Mabel, your hunting partner over the last few seasons is in a breeding project now, right? (What a stunning goshawk!) And I know she was a piece of a bigger journey in recent years. Where did Mabel take you and is there some writing in works?
Yes, Mabel is absolutely stunning. She’s away and I miss her dreadfully. But as for the writing – yes, I’m hammering out a kind of modern-day version of TH White’s The Goshawk — oh the presumption. My story’s simple. In 2007 my dad’s sudden, unexpected death sent me off the rails. And I decided to eschew bereavement counselling in favour of training a goshawk. Yes, Helen; like that would solve everything. Um. Looking back on it, I was trying to escape being human, because humans grieve and hurt, and hawks don’t. It was an … intense experience. I went feral. Became more than half-hawk myself. As the season went on I cut myself off from friends, family, everything. All that was left was Mabel and me, out on hillsides slaying rabbits and pheasants. Slowly, unknowingly, I sank into a very deep depression. I was so hawkish then I didn’t recognise it for what it was. Couldn’t work out why I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings, or why, in the evenings, Mabel fast asleep with a full crop on her bow on the living room floor, I sat in floods of tears. How dumb was I? It wasn’t until November, when I attended my father’s memorial service in St Brides in Fleet Street, standing there at the lectern giving an address to family and all dad’s friends and colleagues in the congregation, that it dawned on me what a fool I’d been. I’d bought into that old nature-writer’s chestnut that after a great hurt you should flee to the wild to heal yourself. I’m thinking now this is a dangerous lie. Human hands are also for other human hands to hold; they should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.
4) So when you and I are old ladies and finally meet with coffee cup of booze in our right hand and hawk on our left, what’s going to be on your glove and what will you have to say about the “kids these days”?
Oh, I’ll probably be sipping the whisky and snarking about how things aren’t what they used to be, yes? And if I’m too old to run after merlins, my first love, it’ll probably be a Harris. Seriously, though, who knows what’ll come? Falconry’s changed in so many ways since I started. Kites, balloons, hybrids. I never thought I’d even see a gyrfalcon, let alone fly one. But it won’t have changed at all in one way: that strange bond, that contract betwen a good falconer and his or her hawk. That’s the thing, the timeless thing. Long after I’m dead there’ll be falconers kneeling to pick goshawks up off pheasants, or straining their necks to blink into a bright sky for their high-flying falcon.
5)What’s the easiest way to spot a Brittish falconer in a crowded room?
Hah! That depends on the falconer. Longwinger? Well, then. Tweed. Tweed is always a giveaway.
Oh, Helen, thanks a lot. Now I want to be you more than ever! And I don’t think I can wait to read your book. Could you just dictate it to me as it comes to you?? (It was worth asking…)Hopefully I’ll at least get to hawk with you before I am snarking in tweed with a coffee cup of tequila. I do look forward to that though…
You can read some of Helen’s other amazing writing and pester her for more frequent updates on her blog.