The art of falconry as antidote for grief. Jun 22, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 39 • By SARA LODGE
Birds of prey are mysterious. Most of us glimpse them at close quarters only occasionally. We hear the “peow-peow” of a hunting buzzard overhead and sight a pale, feathered under-carriage gliding on unseen thermals. Or the disquiet of other, smaller birds alerts us to an aerial dogfight: crows trying to mob a kestrel near their nest. If we are very lucky, or well-briefed, we may raise our binoculars to a shaking branch where an eagle with an egg-yolk yellow beak and a livid eye is perched like a vengeful angel atop a Christmas tree.
Goshawks are among the most elusive of the tribe. They like to sequester themselves in old-growth pine forests, where their gorgeous plumage—gray lines rippling through a pure white breast—is reminiscent of snow falling on pine needles. Like snow, these birds are often deadly. Using field edges and hedgerows for cover, they can stoop at up to 40 mph to punch and tear the life out of rabbits, pheasants, even bigger birds like geese, as their full name, “goose-hawk,” suggests. In the Middle Ages, they were known as “the cook’s bird” because they were so efficient at supplying game for the dinner table. They are solitary by nature. To falconers, they have a reputation for extreme difficulty—for being moody, fierce, easily spooked, and easily lost.
Helen Macdonald’s account of buying and training (“manning”) a goshawk in the wake of her father’s death offers a fascinating introduction to the art of falconry. At first, an untrained bird will “bate”—flap wildly in panic and attempt to get loose—whenever a new person approaches. Only by mastering stillness and the appearance of inattention, a kind of magical invisibility, will the falconer gradually become an accepted object in the bird’s landscape. Then the bird must learn to come and take food from the falconer’s gauntlet. On this association, between the glove and food, rests the invisible bond that will bring the bird back when it is being flown free.
Birds of prey are like boxers and jockeys: Their weight is crucial. If Macdonald’s goshawk is too “high” (heavy) by even a few ounces, she will lack sufficient incentive to return accurately to the glove. If she is too “low” (light), she may be so frustrated with hunger that she swipes at her owner’s scalp with razor-sharp talons. Manning a goshawk, we learn as the narrative progresses, is a matter not only of science but also of developed intuition based on minute observation.
As Macdonald tells us, “To train a hawk, you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods.” In the case of her hawk:
A frowning contraction of the crines around her beak and an almost imperceptible narrowing of her eyes meant something like happy; a particular, fugitive expression on her face, oddly distant and reserved, meant sleepy.
Reading this book, we learn to see the countryside in the hyper-attentive present tense that Macdonald describes as the goshawk’s fighter-pilot worldview.
But Macdonald’s memoir is unusual. It is not merely a book about birds, history, and falconry. It is, foremost, a book about the experience of deep and prolonged grief: how it “bewilders” us and estranges us from human conversation, and how we channel our loss, often in ways we do not at the time recognize.
Macdonald’s father, a well-known photojournalist, died of a sudden heart attack at 67 while on an assignment. His death left Macdonald in crisis. Seeking solace, she embarks on a posthumous argument and a quest with deep roots in her childhood: She drives to Scotland to take possession of a young goshawk, whom she names Mabel (after the Latin amabilis, meaning “lovable”). There is a tradition among falconers that a bird named Attila will never catch any prey, whereas a hawk named Tiddles will be lethal. Macdonald is terrified that she will not be able to keep Mabel alive, let alone “man” her successfully. But her experience in training other birds proves equal to the task, and Mabel surprises everyone with her tractability, eventually becoming so relaxed that she plays with her owner, catching small balls of paper in midair and batting them back.
The argument that Macdonald conducts is with T. H. White, author of The Goshawk (1951) and, more famously, a number of fictions based on Arthurian legend, including The Once and Future King (1958), which inspired the musical Camelot. In The Goshawk, White recorded his epic struggle to tame a goshawk: a battle for mastery that involved keeping the hawk (and himself) awake for days at a time, alternately feeding it and depriving it of food.
A centenary pilgrimage to the world of Gavin MaxwellFeb 2, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 20 • By SARA LODGE
It is autumn and I am making a pilgrimage by sea to a literary gravestone. On my left rise the primeval, groined, and gullied mountains of Skye; on my right is the wild coast of Knoydart, one of the least populated regions of western Scotland. The colors of the land in this season are heart-stoppingly beautiful. Bracken and birch paint the hills gold, ochre, and saddle-brown; the heather is purple as a winter dusk. Light falls differently in this part of the world, where the air is free of particulate matter.
What is slang, and where does it come from? Nov 10, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 09 • By SARA LODGE
Charlotte Brontë liked to let her hair down linguistically from time to time. In an unpublished piece of early fiction, she imagines a scene at a horse race in which the owner of the defeated favorite suspects that his horse was doped. Ned Laury introduces an underworld informer, Jerry Sneak—the man who interfered with the horse—but demands: “Who’ll provide the stumpy, the blunt, the cash as it were to pay for the liquor that cousin of mine will require before he peaches?”
Scots debate independence Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By SARA LODGE
If at first you don’t secede, try, try again. This might be the motto of Alex Salmond’s Scottish National party, which since 1934 has been advocating the proposition that Scotland should be an independent country, governed not from London but from Edinburgh and able to make its own policy decisions about defense, immigration, taxation, and spending. On September 18, Scots will finally face a referendum about their future.
The new indoor theater at Shakespeare’s GlobeJun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By SARA LODGE
There is a new reason to visit London. It is wooden, but lively. Old, but new. Shadowy, but luminous. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a reconstruction of what an indoor theater might have looked and felt like around 1600, when Shakespeare was 36 and at the height of his career as an actor, theatrical entrepreneur, and dramatist.
Celebrating the art (and life) of Thomas Bewick. May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By SARA LODGE
When we first meet Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, she is hiding behind the curtains reading a forbidden book that transports her to the polar tundra:
The English version of civility. Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By SARA LODGE
Two truths tend to strike people around middle age: Money buys less than it once did, and manners are in decline.
Victorian women detectives in life and literature.Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By SARA LODGE
The investigator is chasing a suspect, who has just disappeared through a secret trapdoor. Breathlessly, the private dick follows the masked figure down a ladder into a dark passageway: It turns out to lead from the Belgravia mansion into the vault of a nearby bank. Our hero can see the thief in the act of grabbing the gold and making off—but the trapdoor closes behind the crook, leaving the detective unable to leave the crime scene and about to be apprehended by security guards.
Oh, to be in Holland, now that August’s there . . . Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By SARA LODGE
As my plane drops toward Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, I can see what look like multiple alternative runways: broad pink, blue, and yellow strips that turn the fields around the coast into the flags of an imaginary nation. They are bands of flowers—tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils—and the plane rushes towards them like an overstimulated bee.
The Chelsea Flower Show celebrates its centennial. Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SARA LODGE
In his short story “The Occasional Garden,” Saki pinpoints a subject dear to the British heart, but also key to its social anxieties. Elinor Rapsley is about to receive a lunch visit from a woman whom she detests, Gwenda Pottingdon. Gwenda’s garden is the envy of the neighborhood; Elinor’s is a barren wasteland. Gwenda is coming on purpose to crow over Elinor’s pathetic pansies while describing her own rare and sumptuous roses.
The elder brother of Charles I, in pictures and memory.Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By SARA LODGE
Henry IX is one of the most interesting monarchs Britain never had.
‘You’re at the Transylvania station at a quarter to four . . .’ Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By SARA LODGE
Transylvania has, for centuries, conjured images of wildness and danger.
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