Remember when we were told that, along with a paperless office, the machine age would deliver us a flying car and endless amounts of leisure time?
Right. Not so much.
And so, after buying a paper copy of H is for Hawk, and carrying it around in my bag for six weeks, I made a leap and bought an audio copy on Audible as part of a promotion of that service.
The fact that it was going to be read by the author was an attraction.
An earlier Audible book on artificial intelligence had been read by a voice that sounded a bit like the computer "Hal" from 2001, A Space Odyssey.
Would this be that voice too?
I suspected not.
I am happy to report Helen MacDonald has a delightful voice, and her cadence is perfect.
She is wonderful writer, but she may be even better listened to than read. This is writing as poetry.
I had read T.H. White's The Goshawk before. I even own a first edition (there is no other) of Gone to Ground, his sporting decameron tale, but I had no idea White was gay or a sadist.
All I could tell from reading The Goshawk was that he didn't know his ass from his elbow when it came to training any animal, much less a hawk.
As I listened to Helen MacDonald's recounting of her story, her father's story, and T.H. White's, I was reminded of how much terrier work is like hawking
The frame is the same; one species harnessed by another to hunt a third.
For both, the danger of losing a much-loved animal is always there, as is the need to focus unblinking attention on the thing that is loved.
Fly a hawk, or run a working terrier in the field, and you will eventually have one disappear on you.
It happens to everyone. Most of the time things get sorted quickly enough. But not always.
When a hawk or a terrier slips away unseen, the hollow inside you starts as small as a peanut. In 15 minutes it is as big as a ping pong ball. In half an hour it's as big as a melon. In an hour it is pressing hard against your lungs.
The brain tries to reign things in, but the hollow inside you has now grow, graduated, and is an independent thinker.
You strain for a sound. Was that a goose? A murder of crows? Perhaps a barking dog?
You are hunting as if a life depends on it. You move upwind and down, scanning for movement. You curse passing airplanes and the rumble of distant cars. Then you hear a small muffled sound, or see a flash of fur or feather, and your world swings back, centered and in control.
There it is. All is not lost.
I can fix this.
The illusion of control is restored.
Why do we do this?
Why do we hunt with hawk or terrier when the potential for devastating loss is always there?
I cannot speak for others. I can barely articulate an answer for myself.
The way I hunt allows me to enter forest and field with a new set of glasses. I see more and I begin to understand the world better because I am thinking with a primitive and feral brain that is not my own.
The way I hunt allows me to understand the natural world in a more intimate way -- and with it my own place in a complicated matrix.
In this world there is no past or future, there is only NOW. What is flying NOW? What can be scented NOW? What is the weather NOW?
I may be hunting a small farm on the edge of the suburbs, but I can see the wild, feel the wilder, and almost taste the wilderness.
And what I am doing is not without risk.
I am running along the edge of the abyss and I am aware of it. Yes, the dog or the hawk is wearing an electronic locator, but it is far from magic. Very bad things can happen out here. There is no question about that.
What is going on here is irrational, but it is also basic and elemental.
When the dogs and I go hunting, the code explodes from where it has been coiled up like a watch spring inside our respective bits of DNA.
It is an ancient code written in blood and sweat, and urine and dirt.
This code connects all things, including the dogs and I and the natural world around us.
And it is a timeless code. There is no past or future in the hedge; there is only NOW, now, now.
Perhaps this is part of the attraction.
Perhaps this is why Helen MacDonald took to training a Goshawk as she struggled to remain upright following the death of her father.
Perhaps this is why T.H, White took to training a Goshawk when he came to his own fork in the road.
I do not know.
I do not claim to understand it.
All I know is that a kind of enlightenment occurs for dog, hawk, and human alike. When things go well, we become one together, and with the land, and with the seconds and minutes that we spend together.
It is a perfect thing. It is what we chase in the hedge.