Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Goshawk in the woods.

I'm reading H is for Hawk at the moment, a searing book by Helen McDonald.  It is ostensibly about training a goshawk, but it is so much more than that.  It is a book about loss and obsession, history and wildlife. It tells of her response to her terrible grief at the unexpected death of her father, interweaved with the emotional trauma of training a goshawk as a kind of memorial.  She constantly refers back to the famous T E White book The Goshawk, published in 1951, another searing book, but this one is brutal, "a metaphysical battle" as McDonald describes it.

To say that McDonald's book is emotional is a tad understated.  Blood and tears seep out of the pages, and swirling around them is a mist of madness.

"The world around me was growing very strange indeed.  The light that filled my house was deep and livid, half magnolia, half rainwater.  Things sat in it dark and very still.  Sometimes I felt I was living in a house at the bottom of the sea.  There were imperceptible pressures.  Tapping water pipes.  I'd hear myself breathing and jump at the sound. Something else was there, something standing next to me that I couldn't touch or see, a thing a fraction of a millimetre away from my skin, something vastly wrong, making infinite the distance between me and all the familiar objects of my house....And I walked and worked and made tea and cleaned the house and cooked and ate and wrote.  But at night, as rain picked points of orange light against the windows, I dreamed of a hawk slipping through wet air to somewhere else.  I wanted to follow it"

I haven't finished it yet, but with these images sharp in my mind yesterday evening I walked through Blaise Castle woodland near Bristol.  It was pouring with rain and getting dark, producing another humid, close night.  All the while a piercing, incessant cry kept forcing its way into my thoughts. When people say cries "rent the air" it is a good description, it really did seem to tear the fabric of the woods.  I followed this demonic sound down a track to an opening and found a man and his son stooped over a young female goshawk.  The bird was beautiful but crazed.  It constantly yelled as it tore at a bloodied carcass.  If he tried to put a gloved hand near her she attacked it. Grey and striped with black and rust, she had a weapon for a beak and her beady black eyes had the stare of a devil.  She kept lifting her head and screaming, looking at me, then him, then my Jack Russell. "I'd call her away if I were you," he advised, "she's protective over meat."

"In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats.  Bigger, yes.  But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier, and much, much harder to see.  Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they're the birdwatchers' dark grail."

I asked the man if she was hard to train.  "Of course, all she wants to do is hunt," he said.  "They are supreme predators and I have to gain her trust.  She's screaming out of frustration that I have to feed her and that she can't catch birds herself. In the US its easier to train them, they can let young birds hunt in the wild straight away, but we can't here, so I have to give her meat and she hates it.  She hates being dependent."

I watched for 15 minutes, mesmerised by the shrill, vibrating bundle of feathers and talons.  Eventually I left them, hunched over against the rain and failing light, waiting for the bird to devour the remaining scraps of red.  It was almost dark, but the cries of a raging, frustrated goshawk followed me all the way to the car and back home. I felt like a character in the book.

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