In Order to Grieve, Helen Macdonald Got a Hawk and Practiced Disappearing

Hawks aren’t social animals like dogs or horses; they understand neither coercion nor punishment. The only way to tame them is through positive reinforcement with gifts of food. You want the hawk to eat the food you hold – it’s the first step in reclaiming her that will end with you being hunting partners. But the space between the fear and the food is a vast, vast gulf, and you have to cross it together. I thought, once, that you did it by being infinitely patient. But no: it is that you must become invisible. You’re trying to get her to look at the steak, not at you, because you know – though you haven’t looked – that her eyes are fixed in horror at your profile. All you can hear is the wet click, click, click of her blinking.

To cross this space between fear and food you need – very urgently – not to be there. You empty your mind and become very still. You think of exactly nothing at all. The hawk becomes a strange, hollow concept, as flat as a snapshot or a schematic drawing, but at the same time, as pertinent to your future as an angry high court judge. Your gloved fist squeezes the meat a fraction, and you feel the tiny imbalance of weight and you see out of the very corner of your vision that she’s looked down at it. And so, remaining invisible, you make the food the only thing in the room apart from the hawk; you’re not there at all. And what you hope is that she’ll start eating, and you can very, very slowly make yourself visible. Even if you don’t move a muscle, and just relax into a more normal frame of mind, the hawk knows. It’s extraordinary. It takes a long time to be yourself in the presence of a new hawk.”

From a Telegraph excerpt of writer Helen Macdonald’s bestselling UK memoir, H is for Hawk, which was awarded the Costa Book Award last week, as well as the Samuel Johnson Prize. The memoir documents her attempt to train a goshawk, a notoriously difficult and deadly raptor, as a way to ameliorate the pain of unexpectedly losing her father. The book comes out next month in the U.S. through Grove Press.

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