Saturday, 25 March 2017

Book Review, "H is for Hawk" by Dr Helen Macdonald, Part #2

In chapter 6, entitled "The Box of Stars", an interesting explanation of her goshawk's physiology, which I found particularly interesting as I too have been researching on the perception of Hawks and Falcons, in particular, work that I have already made some short notes upon. Macdonald's explanation of her hawk is useful for me to make a note of here. She is talking about the wildness and independent irritability (it seems that they are quite truculent creatures).
She goes on to say;
 "nervousness, of course, isn't quite the right word: it is simply that they have jacked up nervous systems in which the nerve pathways from the eyes and ears to the motor neurones that control their muscles have only minor links with associated neurones in the brain. Goshawks appear nervous because they live life 10 times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking." (Macdonald, H. p56).

The idea of patience and waiting for the right moment that was encouraged in her upbringing is a continual theme of the book. Indeed referring to her own father's photography and obsessive observations she quotes Henry Cartier-Bresson and states "the taking of a good photograph is a decisive moment. Your eye must see a composition or an expression of that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera, the moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.(p72). This patience and sense of expectation create an anxiety of the sort in both artists and photographers alike, and it is interesting here that those same feelings come through from a source of another point of reference. The sense of patience comes through the quiet observations that the hawk has, and I suspect, all birds of prey have in their moment of seeing prey which they then arrogate for themselves, they seize, claim and expropriated the life of the hunted creature. The time in between those moments is a silent moment of introspection. Macdonald hints at this when she is describing her own observations of Mabel. "She is interested in flies, and specs of floating dust, in the way light falls on certain surfaces. What is she looking at? What is she thinking?" (p84) It is in these quiet moments that Macdonald too exposes her grief again and states "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."

This also is a time while Macdonald is virtually spending 24 hours a day with Mabel, as a kind of habituation, getting used to each other's presence in every single way. Part of the training of the hawk requires a special bond to be created between human and raptor, and this bonding or habituation process can indeed take not just days but up to 3 weeks of intimate sharing of existence within the world together. During all of this time, Macdonald is not only watching the Hawks progress but her own dealing with her grief. The obsessive watching again comes into play.
She states "the first few days with wild new hawk dictate a 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 turned the birds shape into an exquisitely controlled barometer of mood." (p85).

This piece of text draws on my memory again; to an often remembered piece of work by one of my favourite anthropologists, and zoologist. A keen observer and that is the work of Desmond Morris. He talks at length about the ideas of human body language and its derivation from our primal ancestors. In "The Naked Ape" (Morris D, 1967) he discusses the subtle and exquisitely detailed movements of expression that humans make, which later goes on to become a foundation of behavioural study and a whole science of "body language". It is of interest that this notion of body language and communication through gesture is clearly coming through in Macdonald's articulations. She goes on to say "to train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk,… You seem to feel what it needs what it feels." (Macdonald, H. p86).  She talks about this sense of feeling what something else feels, that heightened sense of empathy.  She quotes the poet Keats, who called this a "chameleon quality"; the ability to "tolerate the loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment" (page 86). This too has special appeal to me in my own attempts to see the world from another point of view. To become something else, and literally, to see with something different's vision, requires a very deep and meditative contemplation which will, of course, be speculative at all times, and hence my notion of continental philosophy and ontology through speculative realism is so important.

Once the habituation and acclimatisation of the hawk Mabel are firm;  has become sufficiently bonded with Macdonald, she feels able to start short forays outside, with the hawk retained on the type of leash attached to her feet, through what are known as Jessies. These are tough leather anklets on which various falconry attire and furniture can be placed, such as hoops, rings and bells. The leash is known as a 'creance', which is very thin but extremely durable doubled-up leather cord, attached to the Hawks' jessies and allowed to extend at greater lengths as the training of the bird becomes more established. Out in the open, in the bigger world, the isolation that Macdonald has been placing herself within, and sharing only with Mabel, becomes apparent. Just a simple walk into the walled garden of her cottage (which seems to be within the bounds of Cambridge University), makes a frightening experience for Macdonald as she has acquired the nervous anxiety, almost agitation, with unusual objects, sounds, experiences and phenomena. She remarks on the light, the movement and noise in this outside world, but goes on to say "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 blurred, with pupils that dilate and contract like a camera lens as she focuses, zip-zip-zip-zip,  up to track a passing Cessna aircraft perhaps,-and then she returns her gaze and head upside down to watch a nearby fly, and then tracks another, et cetera"(p98). Macdonald then realises "the world she lives in is not mine. Life is faster for her; time runs slower. Her eyes can follow the wing beats be as easily as ours following the wing beats of a bird. What is she seeing? I wonder, and my brain does backflips trying to imagine it, because I can't."(p98). She then goes on to discuss how Hawks and birds of prey have a different perception of the world. Not only because of their acute eyesight and the deep fovea which I have discussed in a previous blog, but also the fact that a raptor's eyes, its' rods and cones, those light-sensitive receptors that are matched to the wavelengths of the colours red green and blue in our own eyes, are complemented with additional sensitivities.  These other modified rods and cones allow raptors to see well into the ultraviolet as well as polarised light ranges and even into the infrared spectrum, which allows hawks to virtually see the thermal currents of warm air during flight. It is also thought that they may even be able to sense the magnetic lines of force for them to recognise the poles of the earth! Raptors, as well as many other bird species, hence have the ability to trace the subtle variances of geography and topology with that added navigational reference.

This idea of perception of the other dimensions, that we are clearly unfamiliar with as humans becomes interesting too in my own work in trying to mediate some kind of language of recognition through the eyes of the Peregrine. I was particularly encouraged and drawn to an observation that Helen Macdonald makes during a quieter moment of her training Mabel. It is a moment where Macdonald recognises that as this hawk has been hand reared through an incubator from being an egg, she has never seen a prey animal before. Yet seems to instinctively, almost through 'a priori', to know what other animals she may hunt, and those that she may not. Described here, is the first encounter with moorhens and Mabel recognises immediately the need to chase them (p137).
But it is Macdonald's observation that occurred a few days earlier, while Mabel had been sitting on a perch and Macdonald had been going about her business when she noticed the hawk...
 "I'd seen her looking at a small drawing of partridges in the book that I'd left open on the floor. Intrigued I picked up the book and held it in front of her. She kept her eyes fixed on the picture, even when I moved the book about in the air. No way! I thought. The drawing was a link; it was stylised and sparse: it caught the feel and form of partridges, but there was no colour or detail to it. I flipped through the book, showed her the drawings: finches, seabirds, thrushes. She ignored them all. Then I showed her drawing of a pheasant. Her black pupils dilated; she leant forward and stand down her beak directly at it, fascinated as he had been with the partridges. I was amazed. Amazed that she could understand two-dimensional images, and even more amazed that something deep in her brain so these sparse inked curves as fitting the category "game birds" and had pronounced them worthy of interest."(p137).

Initial conclusions;

  • This last paragraph is a strange yet marvellous observation in itself which spurs me on to continue my own quest! 
  • The theme of drawing as a kind of articulation and the halfway point of language between man and hawk fits!
  • It is purely speculative of course, but in that short paragraph (p137) there is a sense of triangulation of proof at last, that my journey is worthwhile.


Macdonald, H. (2014) "H is for Hawk" Jonathan Cape Publishers, London.
Morris, D. (1967) "The Naked Ape" (2nd Ed. 2005), Vantage Books, London.

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