Back from the Underworld: Helen Macdonald’s Wanderlust

Macdonald Side By Side Crop 3

Helen Macdonald has got binoculars to her eyes: she’s watching, just over the Marin Headlands, a red-tailed hawk riding the breezes. The bird is a beauty, and we’re level with it at the ridgeline, watching it glide, then dive into the bowl of the coastal ranges, just as the hills dip to the sea. Hawk Hill, just north over the Golden Gate from San Francisco, is one of the country’s best places for watching hawk migrations.

Macdonald and I are watching hawks together, but hardly in silence. Macdonald keeps talking: Since we got here fifteen minutes ago, our conversation has drifted between the striking sage and sand greens of Bay Area springtime (“I was trained as a painter and I still see the color values,” says Macdonald); to her erstwhile fantasy about becoming a nineteenth-century naturalist (“which would only have worked if I were rich and a man” she notes); and now to zugunruhe, the obscure-sounding German word that describes the wanderlust of migratory birds.

Yes, German — which brought us such useful things as farfegnugen and schadenfreude — even has a word for the anxiety that brings on the need to travel. Zugunruhe is used by naturalists to explain (at least partly) why birds migrate, and why the most migratory of hawks, like the one we’re watching, sail these marine winds thousands of miles from Alaska to Mexico.

But Macdonald, hawk watcher extraordinaire and author of the surprise bestseller H Is for Hawk, clearly has some zugenruhe of her own. She’s been on the road with her book for nearly two years now, and her schedule is as nonstop as her subjects of conversation. After meeting her in New York at the National Book Critics Circle gala a week earlier, I’m seeing her again here in Marin, where she’s giving a lecture and reading. In between, she’s been in Maine: the following day, she’s off on a fourteen-event tour of five cities, all before finally (perhaps) coming to rest again in her home in Exning, an hour outside Cambridge, England — though not for long. By the time I’m emailing her with two or three follow-up questions, she’s in Finland.

All of this seems like it would be a bit much for the woman Macdonald depicts surviving solitary grief in the hybrid memoir that is H Is for Hawk — the woman who is, in theory, Macdonald herself. After the unexpected death of her father, that woman turned inward from life as most of us know it and brought the wild into her house, quite literally, raising an enormous and steely goshawk named Mabel, whom she fed bits of steak and trained not to swoop up too fast (or bate) while tied in its jesses, before eventually taking it out to fly it on the Cambridge moors.

The book was a tremendous critical and commercial success, winning both the prestigious Samuel Johnson and Costa Prizes while simultaneously alighting on bestseller lists: Something about both surviving the death of one’s father and being a contemporary urban woman taking up a thing so unusual, ancient, and primal as falconry struck a chord. Macdonald, far from being cloistered by grief, became enlarged by fame. She took up the role of nature columnist for the New York Times Magazine. She traveled to literary festivals across the world. The woman who shunned humans for the company of a bird of prey now has a legion of Twitter followers. Meanwhile, fame enlarged the scope of her publishing: This March, as well as celebrating the paperback release of her H Is for Hawk, Macdonald was touring for the hardcover release of her book Shaler’s Fish, a collection of poems that plumb the language of science and use knotty syntax to investigate what it means to watch.

Yet Shaler’s Fish — containing poems entitled “Morphometry” “Don Quixote,” and “Bufflehead” — is not a new book but an addition, a volume that reaches the world partly because of H Is for Hawk‘s wild success. Many of the poems were actually written nearly two decades ago when Macdonald was an undergraduate at Cambridge. Reading the book now, one glimpses an eager, ambitious mind digesting parallel realities — the Latinate, taxonomized world alongside an emotional world that drifts beyond category or naming. The book often delights in the moment when — as in hawk watching, or watching anything closely — “thought forgets itself/ with difficulty.” It’s also a book of cerebral interiorities and also “parcels / of ephemera.” And it is a book whose intellectual ambitions are perhaps not yet tethered by the wildly unmooring and deeply human experience of grief that anchors H Is for Hawk.

But if the Macdonald who wrote Shaler’s Fish cannot be the same Macdonald who wrote H Is for Hawk, neither is either of those this Macdonald, who, nine years after her father’s death, is now standing on the ridgeline delighting in a sagebrush lizard, the kind that hang out in backyards all over California. “We don’t have those,” she says, almost cooing. “Oh, how really lovely.”

Of course, this is the crucial thing about a memoir: One is and also isn’t the person in the memoir. This Macdonald, enamored of a small reptile, is now, many years on, doing one more paperback tour and finishing a contract with the New York Times. This Macdonald has thought about a new book but barely has time to write it. This Macdonald is the person who was trying to write an essay about a local experience of encountering a wild boar in her own homeland but ended up finishing the piece from an improbable hotel room at a literary festival in Rajasthan, and the person who filed her piece about how migration plays into our human anxieties about immigration while she herself was on the road.

Macdonald is still bemused by H Is for Hawk‘s success. “It became a story that was older and bigger than me,” she says, “my trip to the underworld and back.” She thinks it was good that she was so solitary, both as she grieved and then later as she wrote down that grief. “I think if I’d gone into a version of an American MFA program or something I wouldn’t have had the courage to be as weird as I was,” she says. “I mean, there was no one there to tell me that I could not be truly strange.” By now we are hiking through enormous bunkers, leftovers of WWII military encampments, brutalist shapes that cut into Marin’s otherwise flowing headlands. We’re talking about the impress of the military on this would-be natural space. The red-tailed hawk has circled away, and a Cooper’s hawk rises. Macdonald notes its wildness, smelling the sharp spring wind. “You wouldn’t fly a bird of your own on a day like this,” Macdonald tells me. The zugunruhe might be far too strong. “Falconers know that on certain days like this in the spring, a hawk would motor off and you’d lose her.”

What does it take to find yourself? That was the question that animated H Is for Hawk: and it hangs in the air now. Macdonald and I hike up to the tip of the hill, to a paved place where they’ve painted silhouettes to show the wingspans of various raptors. We find the goshawk, the eagle, the peregrine falcon. The shapes — on the ground but high in the air of this hill — are for measuring yourself, for placing your own wingspan against a wild bird’s. Together, Macdonald and I spread imaginary wings and look at our shadows. “It’s a bit amateurish,” she says of the peeling paint on the pavement there. “But I love amateurish things, don’t you? I love the way people love.”

I ask Macdonald if all this zugunruhe and all this travel is exhausting to her. She gives not one but two answers. “You know, there’s a real solitariness to it, too, all this touring,” she says. And then, a bit later: “Well, I’m much more at home in the world now.” She pauses. “You know, we always talk about being at home as if it’s a fixed thing. But birds carry their home with them,” she says. “Perhaps I do now too.”