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Non-fiction Book of the Month: H is for Hawk

Read an extract from our Non-fiction Book of the Month, H is for Hawk.

Posted on 1st August 2014 by Guest contributor

Helen and her goshawk Mabel.

When you are broken, you run. But you don’t always run away. Sometimes, helplessly, you run towards. My reasons weren’t White’s, but I was running just the same. It was a morning in early August, and I was four hundred miles from home. What I was doing felt like a drugs deal. It certainly looked like one. For minutes on end I’d paced up and down a Scottish quayside with a can of caffeinated soda in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and an envelope stuffed with £800 in twenty-pound notes in my back pocket. Over there in the car sat Christina, spectacularly impassive in a pair of aviator shades. She’d come along to keep me company, and I hoped she wasn’t bored. She was probably bored. Perhaps she was asleep. I walked back to the car. It was my father’s. I was driving it now, but the boot was full of things I couldn’t bring myself to remove: 35mm film canisters; a crushed packet of aspirin; a newspaper with a half-finished crossword in my father’s hand; a pair of winter gloves. I leaned against the bonnet, rubbed my eyes and looked out at the harbour, willing the ferry into view. A clear pool of turquoise was spreading out there over the Irish Sea; small crosses that were gulls traversed it. It seemed strange that it was day at all; both of us were wiped out from yesterday’s long drive, and faintly freaked out by the hotel we’d stayed at the night before. 21st Century Hotel! it said on a laminated paper sign by the door. When we opened it the first thing we saw was a plastic bulldog sitting on a desk, grimacing at us with the malevolent, merry belligerence of a thing from a nightmare.

They were magic words, arcane and lost. I wanted to master this world that no one knew, to be an expert in its perfect, secret language.

In the hotel room we found a broken computer, a sink that wasn’t plumbed in, and a fully functioning cooker we’d been instructed not to use under any circumstances. ‘Health and Safety,’ the hotelier had explained, rolling his eyes. There were, unexpectedly, two televisions, acres of brown suedette stapled to the walls, and a bathroom with a six-foot sunken bath into which Christina subsided, marvelling at the tea-tinted peat water. I collapsed into a chair, the journey running in my mind like a road-movie directed by a drug-addled auteur. Giant Irn-Bru trucks full of orange, bubblegum-flavoured fizzy Scottish soda. A raven standing in a puddle by the side of the road, wet-trousered and chisel-beaked. Motorway service station A. Motorway service station B. A sandwich. A large cup of undrinkable coffee. Endless miles. More skies. A near-accident caused by inattention on a hillside somewhere. Motorway service stations C and D. I massaged my aching right calf, blinked away the after-images, and got to making jesses.

I should have made them before, but I couldn’t. Only now did the hawk seem real enough to make them necessary. Jesses are the soft leather straps that fit through the leather anklets on a trained hawk’s legs. Singular, jess. It’s a French word from the fourteenth century, back when falconry was the favourite game of the ruling elite. A little scrap of social history in the name for a strip of leather. As a child I’d cleaved to falconry’s disconcertingly complex vocabulary. In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the female so they are called tiercels, from the Latin tertius, for third. Young birds are eyasses, older birds passagers, adult-trapped birds haggards. Half-trained hawks fly on a long line called a creance. Hawks don’t wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate they mute. When they shake themselves they rouse. On and on it goes in a dizzying panoply of terms of precision. The terms were precise for a reason. Knowing your falconry terminology attested to your place in society. Just as in the 1930s T. H. White worried about whether a hunting crop should be properly called a hunting whip, or a riding crop, or a riding whip, or just a crop, or a whip, so in the sixteenth century the Jesuit spy Robert Southwell was terrified he’d be found out because he kept forgetting his falconry terms. But the words weren’t about social fear when I was small. They were magic words, arcane and lost. I wanted to master this world that no one knew, to be an expert in its perfect, secret language.

You can buy it all on the internet now: jesses, hoods, bells, gloves, everything. But when I began falconry, most of us made our own equipment. We’d buy swivels from deep-sea-fishing shops, leashes from ships’ chandlers, beg offcuts from leather tanneries and shoe factories to make our own jesses and hoods. We adapted, we adopted, we usually didn’t improve. Certainly I didn’t. I spent countless hours waxing cotton thread, punching holes in my hands instead of leather in error, frowning, wiping blood away, trying again and again to cut and make and sew things that looked like the photographs in books, waiting for the glorious day when I might have a hawk of my own.

I have a suspicion that all those hours making jesses and leashes weren’t just preparation games. In a scrapbook of my childhood drawings is a small pencil sketch of a kestrel sitting on a glove. The glove’s just an outline, and not a good one – I was six when I drew it. The hawk has a dark eye, a long tail, and a tiny fluffy spray of feathers under its hooked beak. It is a happy kestrel, though a ghostly one; like the glove, it is strangely transparent. But one part of it has been carefully worked: its legs and taloned toes, which are larger than they ought to be, float above the glove because I had no idea how to draw toes that gripped. All the scales and talons on all the toes are delineated with enormous care, and so are the jesses around the falcon’s legs. A wide black line that is the leash extends from them to a big black dot on the glove, a dot I’ve gone over again and again with the pencil until the paper is shined and depressed. It is an anchor point. Here, says the picture, is a kestrel on my hand. It is not going away. It cannot leave.

It’s a sad picture. It reminds me of a paper by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, the one about a child obsessed with string; a boy who tied together chairs and tables, tied cushions to the fireplace, even, worryingly, tied string around his sister’s neck. Winnicott saw this behaviour as a way of dealing with fears of abandonment by the boy’s mother, who’d suffered bouts of depression. For the boy, the string was a kind of wordless communication, a symbolic means of joining. It was a denial of separation. Holding tight. Perhaps those jesses might have been unspoken attempts to hold on to something that had already flown away. I spent the first few weeks of my life in an incubator, full of tubes, under electric light, skin patched and raw, eyes clenched shut. I was the lucky one. I was tiny, but survived. I had a twin brother. He didn’t. He died soon after he was born. I know almost nothing about what happened, only this: it was a tragedy that wasn’t ever to be spoken of. It was a time when that’s what hospitals told grieving parents to do. Move on. Forget about it. Look, you have a child! Get on with your lives. When I found out about my twin many years later, the news was surprising. But not so surprising. I’d always felt a part of me was missing; an old, simple absence. Could my obsession with birds, with falconry in particular, have been born of that first loss? Was that ghostly kestrel a grasped-at apprehension of my twin, its carefully drawn jesses a way of holding tight to something I didn’t know I’d lost, but knew had gone? I suppose it is possible.

But now my father had died. Hold tight. I hadn’t ever imagined that making jesses could be a symbolic act. But as I sat there, cutting hide into long strips, soaking them in warm water, stretching them, greasing them with leather dressing, turning them this way and that in this strange room of broken objects, I knew they were more than just pieces of leather. These were the cords that would hold me to the hawk, just as they would hold the hawk to me. I picked up the craft knife and tapered the end of one jess to a point with a long, smooth cut. There. I was conjuring presences, doing this. Suddenly the hawk was very real. And so, in a burst of remembrance so fierce he could have been there in the room, was my father. Grey hair, glasses, blue cotton shirt, a tie slightly askew, a cup of coffee in one hand and a look of amusement on his face. He used to make me cross by calling falconry equipment by the wrong names. He’d call hoods hats. Creances, bits of string. He did it on purpose. I’d get cross and correct him, thinking he was teasing me.

And now I saw that Dad had known exactly what these things were called, but in the world of the photojournalist, the more expert you were, the less likely you were to call anything by its proper name. For him, photographs were snaps. Cameras simply kit. It wasn’t ever teasing. He was paying me a compliment. Bloody fourteenth-century French vocabulary. Shit. Shit shit shit. It wasn’t his way at all. My throat hurt. My eyes hurt too, and my heart. I cut the end of the other jess. Shaking fingers. Then I placed the two jesses side by side on the glass tabletop. They matched. Tomorrow, I thought, I’m meeting a man I don’t know off the Belfast ferry and I’m going to hand him this envelope full of paper in exchange for a box containing a goshawk. It seemed the unlikeliest thing imaginable.

And then the female arrives. She’s huge. She lands on the edge of the nest and it shakes. Her gnarly feet make the male’s look tiny. She is like an ocean liner.

The goshawk I was about to collect had been bred in an aviary near Belfast. Breeding goshawks isn’t for the faint-hearted. I’ve had friends who’ve tried it and shaken their heads after only one season, scratching their newly greyed hair in a sort of post-traumatic stupor. ‘Never again’, they say. ‘Ever. Most stressful thing I’ve ever done.’ Try it, and you discover there’s a very fine line between goshawk sexual excitement and terrible, mortal violence. You have to watch your hawks constantly, monitor their behaviour, ready yourself for intervention. It’s no good just putting a couple of goshawks in an aviary and leaving them to it. More often than not the female will kill her mate. So instead you house them in separate but adjoining solid-walled aviaries, with a barred hatch between the two through which the pair can see each other. As winter turns to spring they conduct their courtship, like Pyramus and Thisbe, through the gap in the wall, calling, displaying, dropping their powder-blue wings and fluffing their white undertail coverts that look for all the world like a pair of capacious marabou bloomers, and only when the female seems ready – a piece of fine judgement that does not admit error – do you let the male into the breeding chamber. If all goes well, they mate, lay eggs, and a new generation of home-bred goshawks, downy white chicks with bleary eyes and tiny talons, enters the world. I’d never met the breeder of my new hawk, but I knew already he was a man of steel nerves and superhuman patience.

White’s hawk was taken from the wild. No one bred goshawks in captivity in the 1930s: there was no need to try. There were a hundred thousand wild gosses out there in European forests, and no import restrictions to speak of. Like nearly all falconers’ goshawks back then, White’s had come from a nest in Germany. ‘A bundle of precipitous sticks and some white droppings’ was how he imagined his hawk’s birthplace: he’d never seen a goshawk nest. But you can see one, and there’s no need to strike out into the forest to do so. There’s live feed of goshawk nests, now, on the internet. One click, and you’re given an up-close and personal view of the family life of this most secretive of hawks. There, in a four-inch box in low-resolution glitter, is a square of English woodland. The hissing you hear from your computer speakers is a digitised amalgam of leaves, wind and chaffinch song. You see the nest itself, a bulky concatenation of sticks pushed hard up against conifer bark and lined with sprays of green leaves. On the webcam the male goshawk appears on the nest. It’s so sudden, and he’s so brightly shiny white and silver-grey, that it’s like watching a jumping salmon. There’s something about the combination of his rapidity and the lag of the compressed image that plays tricks with your perception: you carry an impression of the bird as you watch it, and the living bird’s movements palimpsest over the impression the bird has made until he fairly glows with substance. Goshawk substance. And he bows his head and calls. Chew-chew-chew-chew-chew-chew. Black mouth, soft smoke in the cold April morning. And then the female arrives. She’s huge. She lands on the edge of the nest and it shakes. Her gnarly feet make the male’s look tiny. She is like an ocean liner. A Cunard goshawk. And on each leg, as she turns, you can see the leather anklets she wears. This bird was bred in captivity somewhere, in an aviary just like the one in Northern Ireland that bred mine. She was flown by a nameless falconer, was lost, and now here she is, settling on four pale eggs, being watched on computer screens as the very type of the wild.

Time passed on the Scottish quay and brightness moved in from the sea. Then a man was walking towards us, holding two enormous cardboard boxes like a couple of oversized suitcases. Strangely alien suitcases that didn’t seem to obey the laws of physics, because as he walked they moved unpredictably, in concert neither with his steps nor with gravity. Whatever is in them is moving, I thought with a little thump of my heart. He set the boxes down, ran his hand through his hair. ‘I’m meeting another falconer here in a bit. He’s having the younger bird. Yours is the older. Bigger too,’ he said. ‘So.’ He ran his hand through his hair again, exposing a long talon scratch across his wrist, angry at its edges and scurfed with dried blood. ‘We’ll check the ring numbers against the Article 10s,’ he explained, pulling a sheaf of yellow paper from the rucksack and unfolding two of the official forms that accompany captive-bred rare birds throughout their lives. ‘Don’t want you going home with the wrong bird.’

We noted the numbers. We stared down at the boxes, at their parcel-tape handles, their doors of thin plywood and hinges of carefully tied string. Then he knelt on the concrete, untied a hinge on the smaller box and squinted into its dark interior. A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within. ‘She’s got her hood off,’ he said, and frowned. That light, leather hood was to keep the hawk from fearful sights. Like us.

Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her darktipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers. She is wearing jesses, and the man holds them. For one awful, long moment she is hanging head-downward, wings open, like a turkey in a butcher’s shop, only her head is turned right-way-up and she is seeing more than she has ever seen before in her whole short life. Her world was an aviary no larger than a living room. Then it was a box. But now it is this; and she can see everything: the point-source glitter on the waves, a diving cormorant a hundred yards out; pigment flakes under wax on the lines of parked cars; far hills and the heather on them and miles and miles of sky where the sun spreads on dust and water and illegible things moving in it that are white scraps of gulls. Everything startling and new-stamped on her entirely astonished brain.



Helen's goshawk, Mabel.


Through all this the man was perfectly calm. He gathered up the hawk in one practised movement, folding her wings, anchoring her broad feathered back against his chest, gripping her scaled yellow legs in one hand. ‘Let’s get that hood back on,’ he said tautly. There was concern in his face. It was born of care. This hawk had been hatched in an incubator, had broken from a frail bluish eggshell into a humid perspex box, and for the first few days of her life this man had fed her with scraps of meat held in a pair of tweezers, waiting patiently for the lumpen, fluffy chick to notice the food and eat, her new neck wobbling with the effort of keeping her head in the air. All at once I loved this man, and fiercely. I grabbed the hood from the box and turned to the hawk. Her beak was open, her hackles raised; her wild eyes were the colour of sun on white paper, and they stared because the whole world had fallen into them at once. One, two, three. I tucked the hood over her head. There was a brief intimation of a thin, angular skull under her feathers, of an alien brain fizzing and fusing with terror, then I drew the braces closed. We checked the ring numbers against the form.

It was the wrong bird. This was the younger one. The smaller one. This was not my hawk.


So we put her back and opened the other box, which was meant to hold the larger, older bird. And dear God, it did. Everything about this second hawk was different. She came out like a Victorian melodrama: a sort of madwoman in the attack. She was smokier and darker and much, much bigger, and instead of twittering, she wailed; great, awful gouts of sound like a thing in pain, and the sound was unbearable. This is my hawk, I was telling myself and it was all I could do to breathe. She too was bareheaded, and I grabbed the hood from the box as before. But as I brought it up to her face I looked into her eyes and saw something blank and crazy in her stare. Some madness from a distant country. I didn’t recognise her. This isn’t my hawk. The hood was on, the ring numbers checked, the bird back in the box, the yellow form folded, the money exchanged, and all I could think was, But this isn’t my hawk. Slow panic. I knew what I had to say, and it was a monstrous breach of etiquette. ‘This is really awkward,’ I began. ‘But I really liked the first one. Do you think there’s any chance I could take that one instead . . . ?’ I tailed off. His eyebrows were raised. I started again, saying stupider things: ‘I’m sure the other falconer would like the larger bird? She’s more beautiful than the first one, isn’t she? I know this is out of order, but I . . . Could I? Would it be all right, do you think?’ And on and on, a desperate, crazy barrage of incoherent appeals.

I’m sure nothing I said persuaded him more than the look on my face as I said it. A tall, white-faced woman with wind-wrecked hair and exhausted eyes was pleading with him on a quayside, hands held out as if she were in a seaside production of Medea. Looking at me he must have sensed that my stuttered request wasn’t a simple one. That there was something behind it that was very important. There was a moment of total silence.

‘All right,’ he said. And then, because he didn’t see me believe him, ‘Yes. Yes, I’m sure that’ll be OK.’

Taken from H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald


H is for HawkYou can Click & Collect H is for Hawk from your local Waterstones bookshop, buy it online at Waterstones.com or download it in ePub format
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