Sunday, August 03, 2014


Bob Scriver, human nest for an "eyas" (young hawk).
The bird was not an eagle, but died before we knew what kind of hawk.

When I first began this pursuit of airborne internet communication, watching the high fliers and learning the skies, I told about our pet eagle who came to us crammed into a cardboard box and ruled the backyard with screams for many years, though she never flew.  Often she sat staring into what looked to us an empty sky.  With binoculars, we could barely see some high flier. 
Stephen Bodio

Telling the story brought me the attention of a network of falconers, mostly connected to Stephen Bodio’s blog called “Querencia,” which is the place in a bullring where a bull desires to be.  

It’s also the name of Bodio’s elegiac love story about his remarkable first wife, published by Russell Chatham with one of his mysterious yearning tonalist paintings for a cover.   Bodio’s second wife, Libby, is equally remarkable.   Most of Bodio’s books are about raptors, pigeons, and gazehounds like salukis.  The “blogroll” on his own blog of other bloggers is one of the best.  He has excellent friends.

"Cat Aralbai leads"

One of his books is “Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia,”  so he was able to match my photo of Bob embracing Eegie with a photo of a Mongolian hunter and his birds.  We always knew the big raptors were descended from dinosaurs.  The east slope of Montana, studded with fossil beds, yields the bones of creatures much like those revealed in Mongolian fossil beds.

Bookstore window display of "H is for Hawk"

Among those blogs Bodio lists is “Fretmarks,” the blog of Helen MacDonald whose new book “H is for Hawk” is barely released. 

MacDonald, who teaches in Cambridge colleges in England, is one of the best writers I know of, managing soaring metaphors with bog detail footings.  (Try her entry for 4-17-2011 which is a description of Brighton.) For a while after her father died she went dark and we worried.  This book is her working-through and resolution, but I haven’t got the book yet.  

"Pale Male"

In preparation I’ve just finished “The Goshawk” by T.H. White, precursor and underlying thread of “The Once and Future King” which I had better get around to reading.  The introduction is by Marie Winn, who wrote “Red-Tails in Love: Pale Male’s Story” about a near-albino red-tailed hawk living along Central Park under the eye of a monitoring camera.  

White, who identifies with Caliban because he is a half-mad recluse in a deteriorating cottage, and who later invented “Wart” to be a precursor of King Arthur, portrays his struggle to bond with “Gos,” an irascible, fire-eyed and stubborn bird.  White’s book becomes part of MacDonald’s book, for where there is great grief there is always great love and difficulty.

Someone once asked me, “Why do you always do hard things?”  I wouldn’t have to explain to all these falconer/writers.  Nothing is so seductive as the barely achievable.  The greater one’s skill, the more difficult the task needs to be and the more fulfilling the necessary growth and effort.  To take on a creature so opinionated and twisty as this goshawk, a bit damaged by “hunger breaks” in tail feathers (places where starvation prevented proper growth for an interval, making a weak spot susceptible to breaking, so that he had a ragged tail) especially since White had only three ancient books and no nearby expert help, meant that he was constantly reviewing plans, creating little scenarios and arrangements that might instill the trust and behavior he wanted.  More like soul-searching than conditioning.


In the early times the key to “manning” falcons was the idea of keeping the bird awake for days, always a little starved, so that the bird’s neurons finally made a map showing the falconer’s fist as its querencia where it could safely eat and sleep.  In his zeal to condition the bird and dread of creating more feather breaks, White fed too generously, which produced bad health and emerald washes.  (They are supposed to be white and Eegie’s sudden swashes did match the plaster we spilled in the shop.)

Here’s the first paragraph of “The Goshawk.”  “When I first saw him he was a round thing like a clothes basket covered with sacking.  But he was tumultuous and frightening, repulsive in the same way as snakes are frightening to people who do not know them, or dangerous as the sudden movement of a toad by the door step when one goes out at night with a lantern into the dew.  The sacking had been sewn with string, and he was bumping against it from underneath: bump, bump, bump, incessantly with more than a hint of lunacy.  The basket pulsed like a big heart in fever.  It gave out weird cries of protest, hysterical, terrified, but furious and authoritative.  It would have eaten anybody alive.”  The goshawk was Caliban’s Caliban.  

Except that Caliban did what Prospero required and it is unclear who White’s Prospero might have been.    But a metaphor can be pushed too far. (Today White would be called “gay,” but he was anything but gleeful and cheerful.)

White’s writing is full of strange antique and specialty words, many of them Anglo-Saxon four-letter designations not at all obscene but part of the hard daily life of a country people in close interaction with both plants and animals, both wild and domestic.  He calls himself in third person “the austringer” who is a flier of hawks, whose shape and habits are like an eagle's.  A goshawk (goose hawk) is three inches shorter than an eagle (both females are larger than males).  When it lands on the ground but misses its prey, it will give chase on foot.  And it does not hesitate to plunge into thickets.  It is thick winged, while a proper “falcon” has long scything wings, swifter and more nimble.



The worst mishap of the bird was “bating,” leaping as to fly without realizing it was pinioned by leather jesses which left it dangling upside down.  Then the handler gently restores the bird to its grip on his hand.  Over and over and over.  When the handler himself loses control and “bates” he must recover his poise by himself.  It is the imposition of self-discipline that leaves the man starving and sleepless.  This is a benefit to the austringer.

We are fond of saying “survival of the fittest” as though denizens of some gymnasium training program would therefore rule the world.  In fact, the word means “fittingest,” those who fit their environment the most closely, the most pliantly, the most exquisitely -- like a free hawk in the air.  For a human to take on the role of a whole environment in order to fit the hawk to himself is both hubristic and full of peril, not least for the heart of the falconer.  Even the reader feels the rage and bruising, but also the ever promised soaring, even though in the end an escape may mean death by dangling from jesses caught in some high tree.  When the language is often that of Shakespeare, strange but vivid, the very difficulty is the reward.  The striving brings fitness.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

I believe you are correct: we are our own reward. So, writing (as it were) our own story is the job of living. How articulate we may be, i.e., how high we fly, how far-reaching our vision, how meaningful and epic our lives, is a bird of another feather. All once and future heroes were born of dreams and visions voiced (and written) by Storytellers. Thus of Merlin we are made.