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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, May 1, 2015

There'll always be an England: H Is for Hawk

Rare excursion for a few days into nonfiction as I take of Helen MacDonald's He Is for Hawk, book club selection for this month. Do I have any interest in falconry? - not really, but find many aspects of this account fascinating: who knew that falconry was displaced as an effective way of hunting once we came up with more accurate and reliable firearms, and then it became exclusively as sport of the idle rich. Who knew there was such a distinction between hawks and falcons, the latter relatively easy to tame and train - the former, not. This account is HM's telling of her training a young hawk, Mabel - and of the traumas in her life that led her to take on this challenge, interlaced with her readings of TH White's book on his own hawk-training in the 1930s. I come away with: It's incredibly difficult to train a hawk, and something I never in a million years would want to do. Should we even do so? I know HM gets pleasure out of training a hawk - but shouldn't they best be left alone, and wild? The thrill of taming a wild animal and having it at your command, even at a great distance, must be a narcotic for some people - and HM speculates at some length about what draws her (and TH White) to falconry - in his case a feeling of being an outsider, as a homosexual, and a latent sadism as well; in hers, mourning for her suddenly dead, loving father - again, a need for control of something that is always on the verge of flying away, and of wildness. I'm not entirely convinced that this explains her interest esp in that she'd been interesting in falcons and hawks since childhood. What she doesn't examine is how falconry fits in with the whole schema of eccentric Englishmen and women - with their love of obscurities and arcana. No hobby like this would or could be kept alive and even remotely fashionable in the U.S. And most of all, though she doesn't acknowledge this, falconry is a way to both make yourself the center of attention and keep people away from you, avoid intimacy, at the same time: she walks down the streets of Cambridge (Engl.) with a hawk on her shoulder and believes, incredibly, that people don't notice and that the only ones who approach her are foreign students. People do notice, but in that weird British way they want to accept it as just another eccentricity or curiosity - so they don't approach her and talk - which, I think, is exactly the state she wants to achieve: center of attention, but alone.

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