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Sunday, October 12, 2014

82) Australian Hobby

Falco longipennis

The week before I broke down crying in my bathroom I’d been standing on a train on the way home from work, the late-winter sun pouring through the window and my mind so full of excitement that I could barely focus, feeling myself suddenly moved to cut my finger open on the paper of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and press my blood onto the page.

At the time I attributed it to a particularly intense manifestation of the urge that sometimes moves me to lay my hand flat on the cover of a book I love, or press a book to my chest; a heightened reaction prompted by the visceral nature of Macdonald’s book, particularly the early parts of it.  A memoir of grief, and of loneliness, and also of falconry and the necessary violence inherent in that ancient art, H is for Hawk seemed to bypass my buzzing brain and go right for the blood and sinew; reading it at that time was an intensely bodily experience.

I’d been riding high.  In the previous week I’d entered at the last minute a competition run by the Melbourne Writers Festival to turn my blog – this blog – into a book, and I’d been chosen as one of the three winners.  Things were going unexpectedly well in my personal life, too.  I was operating on adrenaline and caffeine and barely any sleep – I’d been too excited to sleep.  I’d been working on the book in every spare minute and I’d surrounded myself with friends in anticipation of my birthday and I’d barely stopped grinning in two weeks.

But the wave began to break. In the week after the Melbourne Writers Festival finished I started to feel off-kilter: since the day after the Festival’s close, two days after I’d met and chatted to the other two winners of the competition, I’d felt like there was a tear forming in the corner of my eye.   I was still deliriously happy but my right eye was perpetually damp.  It felt as though tears might start streaming out at any moment and I’d have no idea why.  I joked about it with a friend.

At the same time I was reading H is for Hawk, and finding it extraordinary.  Among many other things the book is a reassessment of TH White and his book the Goshawk, an account of a hopelessly and perhaps wilfully doomed attempt to train – to break, really – a member of that species (Accipiter gentilis).  The Goshawk is a psychodrama, as White sought retreat from the human world in the seemingly simpler and more readily understandable world of animals.  In fact animals only seem easier to understand to us because we understand so little of them – as White, sadly, tragically, discovered in his troubled relationship with the hawk he named Gos.  Helen Macdonald returned to White’s book in the aftermath of her father’s sudden death, the event which is at the core of H is for Hawk, and before reading H is for Hawk I’d read the Goshawk, the better to appreciate both books – but perhaps it was too much, the tormented head of White’s prose and the riven heart of Macdonald’s; perhaps it was too much, in that particular moment of my life.

The day before I broke down crying in the bathroom I was sitting in a park with a friend, trying to ignore a feeling of foreboding that had been building up in me since the start of the day.  I was waiting for a particular piece of news and I anticipated that it would be bad: a sense of doom, of history repeating itself, hung over me, and I felt heavy, and frightened, and despairing.  I was uncertain whether to embrace the feeling and so steel myself against the bad news I felt coming, or whether to shun it lest it should become a self-fulfilling prophecy; I was too much in my own head, and needed a way to escape, when suddenly out of nowhere my friend and I heard a commotion just above us. Looking up we saw two birds locked together in mid-air; the smaller of the two was a Cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus); the larger was an Australian Hobby, the smallest of Australia’s six species of Falcon (Falconidae).  The Hobby had a grasp of the Cockatiel and the smaller bird, the hunted bird, was squawking and shrieking in alarm.

The Cockatiel is one of the world’s most popular pet birds, second only to another Australian native, the Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus).  Cockatiels in the wild are grey, but the Cockatiel in the park that day was white.  White is a common morph of captive-bred birds.  Cockatiels are also birds of the arid and semi-arid regions, a long way away from Melbourne.  It’s almost certain that the bird that was almost killed by the Hobby in the park that day had escaped from an aviary.

Amazingly, the Cockatiel escaped.  The falcon let go.  My friend and I watched as just five metres directly above our heads the Cockatiel broke free like a rubber band snapping; the two birds retired to separate trees.  The Hobby seemed unaffected by its failed hunt: I left my friend to go and stand under the tree it was perching in and for several minutes I watched as it scratched itself, tidied its feathers, picked its talons clean.  Eventually I turned away for a moment and when I turned back it had disappeared.  Meanwhile, in a tree next to where my friend was sitting, the Cockatiel was still as a ghost, conspicuous white against the dark grey-brown of the bark.  I wasn’t sure at first that it was the Cockatiel, it was so still.  I glanced at it from time to time, over the course of the next couple of hours, and I never saw it move: after having almost been killed in mid-air it had clamped itself to the safety of the bough and was frozen there, rigid.

When six days before the Hobby’s failed hunt I’d felt the impulse to cut myself on H is for Hawk, it had in the moment felt entirely normal.  Now, a month later, I can recognise it as the kind of urge that I hadn’t felt since I was in high school, nearly twenty years ago, being treated for depression and mild obsessive-compulsive disorder.  The drugs I was prescribed then, in the course of tweaking my brain chemistry into a more manageable configuration, pushed me into bizarre urges to buy a packet of cigarettes when I’d always reviled smoking, or to start writing with a black pen when I’d always previously used blue.  I never acted on the urges but they were there, and they were strong, and in the moment they felt entirely normal.

Mental illness is a thing that never entirely goes away, but you can manage it and you can minimise it to the extent that it ceases to be a meaningful problem.  The drugs worked: they retrained my brain enough that eventually I felt myself changed.  I stopped taking the drugs cold-turkey, mid-way through my prescription, and I haven’t taken them since; obsessions and compulsions return to me from time to time, some that I can’t shake or can’t think my way out of, but it’s been a very long time since the disorder has been a dominating factor in my life.  In truth it was never so bad, and though I don’t like to talk about it the reason is not because of the stigma of mental illness but rather because I know that obsessive compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses ruin a great many people’s lives, whereas I was lucky enough to be touched by the illness only lightly: at the peak of my obsessive compulsive disorder I’d have to wash my hands a dozen times before they felt clean, or double-check to see that the door was locked five or six times before I could go to bed.  It seems churlish to draw attention to such a thing when other people are afflicted so much more severely.

As I watched the Cockatiel in the park that day I wondered: what is its state of mind?  Will it be traumatised by being so closely brushed by death?  Mental illness is one way by which we try to differentiate ourselves from other animals: our sense of identity is so intrinsically tied to our mental lives that we tend to think of it as a uniquely human affliction.  If we allow that non-human animals can suffer from mental illness, we have to allow that they are in some way sentient; that they have minds; that those minds can be bent and broken.  Yet mental illness has been observed in animals, particularly in captive animals, and as our conception of animal lives slowly changes so do we see more parallels between their minds and ours.  In the worst stages of my teenage illness I grew my fingernails long and I would clench my fists as hard as I could, trying to draw blood, because the immediacy of the sharp pain was sometimes the only way that I could clear my mind of the intrusion of unwanted thoughts.  In behaviour that is closely analogous to what in humans we call obsessive-compulsive disorder caged birds have been known to self-harm, repetitively pluck the feathers from their own bodies.  Even if rescued, animals that have been mistreated in captivity can exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder long after their liberation.  Parrots, being highly social animals which when caged are normally caged in solitude with no contact with others of their species, are particularly susceptible to long-term mental illness and signs of stress such as violence, repetitive behaviour, and self-mutilation.

An amateur and unpractised falconer in the early 1930s when he had possession of Gos, White tried to break the hawk by use of the long-discredited, centuries-old technique of keeping it awake for days on end.  This necessitated White staying awake, too, and so White’s cruelty towards the hawk that he so admired became mirrored in cruelty to himself, and vice-versa.  White’s Goshawk eventually freed itself; it took its opportunity when White carelessly left it unattended and tethered to the earth by just a fraying line – but when it did so, what was its state of mind?  Throughout the Goshawk White painstakingly records every attempted escape, every panicked “bate” – the falconer’s term for that moment when the tethered bird attempts to fly free.  Gos was born a wild hawk; his first experience of humans was being caught, and stuffed into a basket, and transported across Europe to England where White bought him, broken feathers and all.  The Goshawk’s wild and ferocious reputation in falconry – a reputation which Macdonald does much to discredit in H is for Hawk – obscured from White the nature of his bird’s troubled mental state.  It is ever thus: the behaviour of caged birds that we take to be normal– pacing, repetitive actions and movements, loud vocalisation, obsessive destructive behaviour – are increasingly being recognised as manifestations of severe mental distress.

By the time Gos escaped, White, survivor of an abusive and violent childhood, self-denying homosexual, a man trapped in a labyrinth of loneliness into which he had walked himself and which he could not find a way out of, had systematically abused the bird for many weeks.  Man hands on misery to man – and not just to man.

We become trapped in our own minds.  It’s been observed – not least by Helen Macdonald – that many of those – of us – who write about nature do so as an attempt to flee from some previous trauma, or sadness, or bruising.  Nature is the bright sharp shock that cuts through the cage of our unwanted thoughts.  When I saw the Hobby chase the Cockatiel in the park that day it jolted me from the black foreboding that had engulfed me that day.

After watching the Hobby for a while I trotted happily back to my friend and sat down.  Soon enough my phone buzzed.  It was the news I’d been anticipating, and in my anger at myself I felt as though I’d worried the news into existence.  I told my friend.  We opened a bottle of wine.  I became silent.  I knew what this was, I’d been through this all before: the same news, the same situation, over and over.  My mind, churning up until then, became now very, very still.  This is the trap: that the mental state we hate for its inescapability is also the mental state we take comfort in for its familiarity.

But I had escaped, briefly, or at any rate I’d bated, and when I woke the next morning and felt the trap snap shut around me, felt the line pull me back to the earth, everything broke.  In the privacy of the bathroom I began sobbing; the wave had crashed.  Watching the Hobby groom itself in the tree – noticing, too, the Cockatiel still and terrified on its own bough – I had been lifted out of myself.  Perhaps White had also felt himself transported in the presence of Gos.  Macdonald, reeling from her father’s death, turned to a Goshawk – an animal she confesses to never having previously been tempted by in all her years of falconry.  Animals can do this for us, can relieve us of ourselves – but it is too great a burden to place on them; when we demand so much of animals it’s unfair to expect them also to be our saviours.  They have, as the saying goes, minds of their own.

We must learn instead to live with ourselves, and to recognise our darker thoughts for the illusions that they so often are.  Two weeks after the episode in the bathroom I began to appreciate that though it had had a specific trigger, it had also sprung from the out-of-kilter emotions of the weeks before it: it was the inevitable reversal of two weeks of living in a maniacally elevated state.  Three weeks after the episode I learned that the trigger for it had been a misunderstanding, or a misinterpretation of a misunderstanding: trapped in my own mind I had created a situation out of nothing and had bent the facts to suit it.  Now I’m back to normal: I have a happy disposition, I can’t help it.  I’ll be all right.  But of what became of the Cockatiel, and of what became of White’s Goshawk Gos, nobody knows.

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