When walking the forest you come across all sorts of things you don’t expect. Great tracts of reindeer moss, for example: tiny stars and florets and inklings of an ancient flora growing on exhausted land. Crisp underfoot in summer, the stuff is like a patch of the arctic fallen into the world in the wrong place. Everywhere, there are bony shoulders and blades of flint. On wet mornings you can pick up shards knocked from flint cores by Neolithic craftsmen, tiny flakes of stone glowing in thin coats of cold water. This region was the center of the flint industry in Neolithic times. And later, it became famous for rabbits farmed for meat and felt. Giant, enclosed warrens hedged by thornbanks once ranged right across the sandy landscape, giving their names to places here – Wangford Warren, Lakenheath Warren – and eventually, the rabbits brought disaster. Their close grazing, in concert with that of sheep, reduced the short sward to a thin crust of roots over sand. Where the grazing was worst, sand blew into drifts and moved across the land. In 1688 strong south-westerly winds raised the broken ground to the sky. A vast yellow cloud obscured the sun. Tons of land shifted, moved, dropped. Brandon was encircled by sand; Santon Downham was engulfed, its river choked entirely. When the winds stopped, dunes stretched for miles between Brandon and Barton Mills. The area became famed for its atrociously bad travel: soft dunes, scorching in summer and infested with highwaymen at night. Our very own Arabia deserta. John Evelyn described them as the ‘Travelling Sands’ that ‘so damag’d the country, rouling from place to place, like the Sands in the Deserts of Lybia, quite overwhelmed some gentlemen’s whole estates’.
Here I was, standing in Evelyn’s Travelling Sands. Most of the dunes are hidden by pines – the forest was planted here in the 1920s to give us timber for future wars – and the highwaymen long gone. But it still feels dangerous, half-buried, damaged. I love it because of all the places I know in England, it feels to me the wildest. It’s not an untouched wilderness like a mountaintop, but a ramshackle wildness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness. It’s rich with the sense of an alternative countryside history; not just the grand, leisured dreams of landed estates, but a history of industry, forestry, disaster, commerce and work. I couldn’t think of a more perfect place to find goshawks. They fit this strange Breckland landscape to perfection, because their history is just as human.
It’s a fascinating story. Goshawks once bred across the British Isles. ‘There are divers Sorts and Sizes of Goshawks,’ wrote Richard Blome in 1618, ‘which are different in Goodness, force and hardiness according to the several Countries where they are Bred; but no place affords so good as those of Moscovy, Norway, and the North of Ireland, especially in the County of Tyrone.’ But the qualities of goshawks were forgotten with the advent of Land Enclosure, which limited the ability of ordinary folk to fly hawks, and the advent of accurate firearms that made shooting, rather than falconry, high fashion. Goshawks became vermin, not hunting companions. Their persecution by gamekeepers was the final straw for a goshawk population already struggling from habitat loss. By the late nineteenth century British goshawks were extinct. I have a photograph of the stuffed remains of one of the last birds to be shot; a black-and-white snapshot of a bird from a Scottish estate, draggled, stuffed and glassy-eyed. They were gone. But in the 1960s and 1970s, falconers started a quiet, unofficial scheme to bring them back. The British Falconers’ Club worked out that for the cost of importing a goshawk from the Continent for falconry, you could afford to bring in a second bird and release it. Buy one, set one free. It wasn’t a hard thing to do with a bird as self-reliant and predatory as a gos. You just found a forest and opened the box. Like-minded falconers started doing this all over Britain. The hawks came from Sweden, Germany and Finland: most were huge, pale, taiga forest gosses. Some were released on purpose. Some were simply lost. They survived, found each other and bred, secretly and successfully. Today their descendants number around four hundred and fifty pairs. Elusive, spectacular, utterly at home, the fact of these British goshawks makes me happy. Their existence gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always something untouched by human hearts and hands. The wild can be human work.
These men didn’t seem annoyed; fatalistic merely. They shrugged their waxed cotton shoulders, filled and lit pipes, waved the rest of us farewell. We trudged on into the gloom. There was something of the doomed polar expedition about it all, a kind of chivalric Edwardian vibe. No, no, you go on. I’ll only slow you down. The disposition of their hawks was peculiar. But it wasn’t unsociable. It was something much stranger. It seemed that the hawks couldn’t see us at all, that they’d slipped out of our world entirely and moved into another, wilder world from which humans had been utterly erased. These men knew they had vanished. Nothing could be done except wait. So we left them behind: three solitary figures staring up into trees in the winter dusk, mist thickening in the fields around them, each trusting that the world would later right itself and their hawk would return. And like the feathers in my pocket, their waiting also tugged at my faintly baffled heart. I never forgot those silent, wayward goshawks. But when I became a falconer I never wanted to fly one. They unnerved me. They were things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets. Falcons were the raptors I loved: sharp-winged, bullet-heavy birds with dark eyes and an extraordinary ease in the air. I rejoiced in their aerial verve, their friendliness, their breathtaking stoops from a thousand feet, wind tearing through their wings with the sound of ripping canvas. They were as different from hawks as dogs are from cats. What’s more, they seemed better than hawks: my books all assured me that the peregrine falcon was the finest bird on earth. ‘She is noble in her nature’ wrote Captain Gilbert Blaine in 1936. ‘Of all living creatures she is the most perfect embodiment of power, speed and grace.’ It took me years to work out that this glorification of falcons was partly down to who got to fly them. You can fly a goshawk almost anywhere, because their hunting style is a quick dash from the fist after prey at close range, but to fly falcons properly you need space: grouse moors, partridge manors, huge expanses of open farmland, things not easy to come by unless you’re wealthy or well connected. ‘Among the cultured peoples,’ Blaine wrote, ‘the use and possession of the noble falcons were confined to the aristocracy, as an exclusive right and privilege.’
Compared to those aristocratic falconers, the austringer, the solitary trainer of goshawks and sparrowhawks, has had a pretty terrible press. ‘Do not house your graceless austringers in the falconers’ room,’ sniped the fourteenth-century Norman writer Gace de la Bigne. ‘They are cursed in scripture, for they hate company and go alone about their sport. When one sees an ill-formed man, with great big feet and long shapeless shanks, built like a trestle, hump-shouldered and skew-backed, and one wants to mock him, one says, “Look, what an austringer!”‘ And as the austringer, so the hawk, even in books written six centuries later. ‘One cannot feel for a goshawk the same respect and admiration that one does for a peregrine,’ Blaine explained. ‘The names usually bestowed upon her are a sufficient index to her character. Such names as “Vampire”, “Jezebel”, “Swastika” or even “Mrs Glasse” aptly fit her, but would ill become a peregrine.’ Goshawks were ruffians murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign. Bloodthirsty, wrote nineteenth-century falconer Major Charles Hawkins Fisher, with patent disapproval. Vile. For years I was inclined to agree, because I kept having conversations that made me more certain than ever that I’d never train one. ‘You fly falcons?’ a falconer enquired of me once. ‘I prefer goshawks. You know where you are with a gos.’ ‘Aren’t they a pain in the arse?’ I said, remembering all those hunched forms lodged high in wintry trees. ‘Not if you know the secret,’ he countered, leaning closer. There was a slight Jack Nicholson vibe to all this. I drew back, faintly alarmed. ‘It’s simple. If you want a well-behaved goshawk, you just have to do one thing. Give ’em the opportunity to kill things. Kill as much as possible. Murder sorts them out.’ And he grinned. ‘Right,’ I said. There was a pause, as if it wasn’t quite the right response. I tried again. ‘Thanks.’ And I was all, Bloody hell! I’m sticking with falcons, thank you very much. I’d never thought I’d train a goshawk. Ever.
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 digitized 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.
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 dark-tipped 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 newstamped on her entirely astonished brain.
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. Oh. 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 recognize 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.
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.
I knew training this hawk would be hard. Goshawks are famously difficult to tame. To man, in falconry parlance. You can man a merlin in a few days. I once flew a Harris Hawk free after four. But gosses are nervous, highly-strung birds and it takes a long time to convince them you’re not the enemy. Nervousness, of course, isn’t quite the right word: it’s simply that they have jacked-up nervous systems in which nerve pathways from the eyes and ears to the motor neurons that control their muscles have only minor links with associated neurons in the brain. Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking. ‘Of all Hawks,’ wrote seventeenth-century falconer Richard Blome, ‘she is doubtless the most Shie and Coy both towards the Men and Dogs, requiring more the Courtship of a Mistress than the Authority of a Master, being apt to remember any unkind and rough usage; but being gently handled, will become very tractable, and kind to her keeper.’ Well, kindness it would be, and kindness we shall hope for.
A long time ago I’d seen a suitcase in an art gallery, a small brown leather suitcase lying on its side on a white table. It was the most mundane object imaginable, and faintly sad, as if someone had put it down on their way somewhere and forgotten to pick it up. The artist had cut a small round hole through the leather. Look inside, said a pasted label, and with the faint embarrassment of being required to participate in a work of art, I leaned and put my eye to the hole. Started in surprise. Looked again. And there I was, a king of infinite space, dizzy, exhilarated, looking into a deep starfield that stretched into infinity It was cleverly done; the artist had stuck two acid-spotted mirrors to the top and bottom of the case and lit them with a parade of tiny bulbs. The reflections of the spots and holes in the glass and the bright points of light turned the interior of that suitcase into a bright, cold universe that went on forever.
Nothing was wrong with the hawk. She wasn’t sick. She was a baby. She fell asleep because that’s what babies do. I wasn’t sick either. But I was orphaned and desperately suggestible, and I didn’t know what was happening to me. For years I’d scoffed at White’s notion of hawk-training as a rite of passage. Overblown, I’d thought. Loopy. Because it wasn’t like that. I knew it wasn’t. I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.
I was turning into a hawk.
I didn’t shrink and grow plumes like the Wart in The Sword in the Stone, who was transformed by Merlyn into a merlin as part of his magical education. I had loved that scene as a child. I had read it over and over again, thrilling at the Wart’s toes turning to talons and scratching on the floor, his primary feathers bursting in soft blue quills from the end of his fingers. But I was turning into a hawk all the same.
The change came about through my grief, my watching, my not being myself. The first few days with a wild new hawk are a delicate, reflexive dance of manners. To judge when to scratch your nose without offence, when to walk and when to sit, when to retreat and when to come close, you must read your hawk’s state of mind. You do this by watching her posture and her feathers, the workings of which turn the bird’s shape into an exquisitely controlled barometer of mood. A hawk’s simpler emotions are easily perceived. Feathers held tight to the body mean I am afraid. Held loosely they mean I am at ease. But the longer you watch a hawk the more subtleties you see; and soon, in my hypervigilant state, I was responding to the tiniest of cues. 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.
To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods. Then you gain the ability to predict what it will do next. This is the sixth sense of the practiced animal trainer. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. Notice what it notices. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own. You are exercising what the poet Keats called your chameleon quality, the ability to ‘tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment’. Such a feat of imaginative recreation has always come easily to me. Too easily. It’s part of being a watcher, forgetting who you are and putting yourself in the thing you are watching. That is why the girl who was me when I was small loved watching birds. She made herself disappear, and then in the birds she watched, took flight. It was happening now. I had put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, and as the days passed in the darkened room my humanity was burning away.
Later that afternoon I take Mabel into the walled garden of my college house. Above us is a deep field of fast-moving cumulus. Branches lift in the breeze; leaves shift with a collapsing, papery flicker. The air is thick with sun and dust and dandelion seeds. There’s too much light, too much contrast. Too much noise and movement. I flinch at the hurry of it all. But the hawk? The hawk is unperturbed. She tips her head sideways to look up at the moving clouds – in daylight her irises are flat and shiny and slightly burred, with pupils that dilate and contract like a camera lens as she focuses – zip-zip-zip – up to track a passing Cessna – and then she turns her head upside down to watch a fly, and then tracks another fly, and pulls abstractedly at the meat I hold in the glove, and watches other things way, way beyond my poor human vision. The world she lives in is not mine. Life is faster for her; time runs slower. Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird. What is she seeing? I wonder, and my brain does backflips trying to imagine it, because I can’t. I have three different receptor-sensitivities in my eyes: red, green and blue. Hawks, like other birds, have four. This hawk can see colors I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarized light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precision that she can see with fierce clarity things I can’t possibly resolve from the generalized blur. The claws on the toes of the house martins overhead. The veins on the wings of the white butterfly hunting its wavering course over the mustards at the end of the garden. I’m standing there, my sorry human eyes overwhelmed by light and detail, while the hawk watches everything with the greedy intensity of a child filling in a coloring book, scribbling joyously, blocking in color, making the pages its own.
It is bright, after heavy rain, and the crowds of closing time have gone. On this second expedition from the house Mabel grips the glove more tightly than ever. She is tense. She looks smaller and feels heavier in this mood, as if fear had a weight to it, as if pewter had been poured into her long and airy bones. The raindrop marks on her tight-feathered front run together into long lines like those around a downturned mouth. She picks fitfully at her food, but mostly she stares, taut with reserve, about her. She follows bicycles with her eyes. She hunches ready to spring when people come too close. Children alarm her. She is unsure about dogs. Big dogs, that is. Small dogs fascinate her for other reasons. After ten minutes of haunted apprehension, the goshawk decides that she’s not going to be eaten, or beaten to death, by any of these things. She rouses and begins to eat. Cars and buses rattle fumily past, and when the food is gone she stands staring at the strange world around her. So do I. I’ve been with the hawk so long, just her and me, that I’m seeing my city through her eyes. She watches a woman throwing a ball to her dog on the grass, and I watch too, as baffled by what she’s doing as the hawk is. I stare at traffic lights before I remember what they are. Bicycles are spinning mysteries of glittering metal. The buses going past are walls with wheels. What’s salient to the hawk in the city is not what is salient to man. The things she sees are uninteresting to her. Irrelevant. Until there’s a clatter of wings. We both look up. There’s a pigeon, a woodpigeon, sailing down to roost in a lime tree above us. Time slows. The air thickens and the hawk is transformed. It’s as if all her weapons systems were suddenly engaged. Red cross-hairs. She stands on her toes and cranes her neck. This. This flightpath. This thing, she thinks. This is fascinating. Some part of the hawk’s young brain has just worked something out, and it has everything to do with death. ‘For the goshawk,’ wrote White,
I close my copy of Bert’s Treatise of Hawks and Hawking with a snap, and as the cover falls my hawk makes a curious, bewitching movement. She twitches her head to one side then turns it upside down and continues to regard me with the tip of her beak pointing at the ceiling. I am astonished. I’ve seen this head-turning before. Baby falcons do it when they play. But goshawks? Really? I pull a sheet of paper towards me, tear a long strip from one side, scrunch it into a ball, and offer it to the hawk in my fingers. She grabs it with her beak. It crunches. She likes the sound. She crunches it again and then lets it drop, turning her head upside down as it hits the floor. I pick it up and offer it to her again. She grabs it and bites it very gently over and over again: gnam gnam gnam. She looks like a glove puppet, a Punch and Judy crocodile. Her eyes are narrowed in bird-laughter. I am laughing too. I roll a magazine into a tube and peer at her through it as if it were a telescope. She ducks her head to look at me through the hole. She pushes her beak into it as far as it will go, biting the empty air inside. Putting my mouth to my side of my paper telescope I boom into it: ‘Hello, Mabel.’ She pulls her beak free. All the feathers on her forehead are raised. She shakes her tail rapidly from side to side and shivers with happiness. An obscure shame grips
I had called so many hawks before, but calling Mabel was different. I stood there, raised my arm, and whistled the whistle that meant, Please come. This is where you want to be. Fly to me. Ignore the towering clouds, the wind that pushes the trees behind you. Fix yourself on me and fly between where you are and where I am. And I’d hear my heart beating. And I’d see the hawk crouch and fly. I’d see her drop from the perch, speed towards me, and my heart would be in my mouth. Though she was still on the creance, I feared the faltering. I feared the veering off, the sudden fright, the hawk flying away. But the beating wings brought her straight to me, and the thump of her gripping talons on the glove was a miracle. It was always a miracle. I choose to be here, it meant. I eschew the air, the woods, the fields. There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning. But it was hard, now, to distinguish between my heart and the hawk at all. When she sat twenty yards across the pitch part of me sat there too, as if someone had taken my heart and moved it that little distance. It reminded me of Philip Pullman’s children’s fantasy series His Dark Materials, in which each person has a daemon, an animal that is a visible manifestation of their soul and accompanies them everywhere. When people are separated from their daemons they feel pain. This was a universe very close to mine. I felt incomplete unless the hawk was sitting on my hand: we were parts of each other. Grief and the hawk had conspired to this strangeness. I trusted she would fly to me as simply and completely as I trusted gravity would make things fall. And so entrenched was this sense that the hawk flying to me was part of the workings of the world that when things went wrong, the world went wrong with it.
The vocabulary I’d learned from the books distanced me from death. Trained hawks didn’t catch animals. They caught quarry. They caught game. What an extraordinary term. Game. I sat quietly watching the line and wondered. I would hunt with this hawk. Of course I would. Training a goshawk and not letting it hunt seemed to me like raising a child and not letting it play. But that was not why I needed her. To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world. Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce, corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge. My flight from death was on her barred and beating wings.
To her right is a male martial eagle, an antelope-killing black and white monster with piercing white eyes. It is enormous, bigger than most of the dogs walking past the mesh fence in front of the marquee, and it watches them go by with its black chrysanthemum-petalled crest raised in idle speculation of murder.
White was not always the victim in these rituals. School taught him that as he suffered at the hands of older boys, so he should punish the younger. He joined gangs and terrorized those weaker than himself, testing them as he had been tested. One term the test was to jump from a window in Big School fourteen feet to the ground. Puppy Mason was too scared to do it, so White assisted in pushing him out. When the fall broke his leg in three places, they were impressed by his silence. He told the masters that he had tripped over a twig on the headmaster’s garden path. Puppy had been tested, had behaved heroically, and his membership of the fraternity was approved.
The biggest field – one planted with oilseed rape – is not like the others. It is a mystery. Walking it with Mabel is like playing natural-historical battleships. Anything could be living in those thick-packed bluish leaves. Pheasants, partridges, hares – even a jack snipe, whirring up with snappy wingbeats from a muddy patch near the hedge. It seems ludicrous that anything could be invisible in a bare two inches of herbage. But everything is. There is a sense of creation about it: when the hare leapt up from our feet today it was as if it had been made by the field ex nihilo. The hare had an ally: a strong north-easterly. Mabel tried twice to grab it, and both times it jinked across the wind and she missed. It is very strange watching a hawk chase a land animal in a high wind. The hare has purchase: its claws and furry pads dig into leaves and mud, and it uses the ground to propel itself against. But the hawk moves in air alone. It is like watching one element against another. One world versus another, like a gannet diving into the sea for fish.
The fields where I fly Mabel back in Cambridge are farmed organically, and they are teeming with life. These are not. The big animals are here, it is true: the deer, the foxes, the rabbits; the fields look the same, and the trees, too, but look more carefully and this land is empty. There are few plants other than crops, and few bees, or butterflies for the soil is dressed and sprayed with chemicals that kill. Ten years ago there were turtle doves on this land. Thirty years ago there were corn buntings and enormous flocks of lapwings. Seventy years ago there were red-backed shrikes, wrynecks and snipe. Two hundred years ago, ravens and black grouse. All of them are gone.