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Helen Macdonald and her encounter with a wild hawk

Helen Macdonald and her encounter with a wild hawk

Helen Macdonald
Samuel Johnson Prize
non-fiction

It was last winter. I was trying to finish the book. I'd hit a rut. Sometimes you do. So I made a break for it. I shut down my computer and drove to see the hill again, the place where I'd flown my hawk. I'd not been there for a long time. It would be an inspiration, I thought, make the words come again. But as I walked up the stony track, I started feeling uncomfortable. My hawk wasn't there. Different crops grew in the fields; the hedges were taller, our familiar landmarks gone. I trudged across to the little wood. It had been thinned since I was last here; washed in weak afternoon sun it felt smaller, tamer. Bleached crisp packets on the leaf litter, a dumped Christmas tree. I leaned back against a sycamore, quite miserable now. I'd fallen prey to that easy assumption that the countryside is a constant, unchanging thing. Wrong. I felt old and not very wise. I missed Mabel, I missed what this wood had been. It was all different now. So was I.

But then the hawk came. The hawk came like a conjured wish, something so familiar to me in this particular place it didn't seem odd at all. It swept past, then stopped, caught sidelong on a branch as if it had been thrown there. Not my hawk: a wild one, a sparrowhawk, and the mystery was this: it didn't see me. How could it not? There it was, no more than six feet away, at exactly head-height, frosted grey and winter-white. It puffed out its barred feathery tunic, turned its face towards me, a tiny head of sunflower-yellow eyes and neat blue beak, the whole thing somehow like a twist of hairs caught on barbed wire. The years collapsed in an instant. The world was all hawk. It made me smile. And as my face moved the hawk saw me and was gone, tearing away, tip-tilting and shifting through the branches of an old wood it had made once again familiar.

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