Of hawks and wild places

I’ve retreated into myself in the past few weeks, unable to write, unable to communicate. The time of year, the news stories on the television, morose thoughts about my upcoming surgery. Early September hits me like a train every year. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the anniversary of my father’s death comes around and knocks me down all over again. It takes time to pull myself out of that hole.

This year my grief has been compounded by images of new born babies, small children, old men fleeing in desperation from their homes and searching for hope in an unsure Europe. I feel helpless in the face of such misery and desperation, yet tearfully grateful for the crowds of welcoming ordinary citizens, opening their hearts and their homes to refugees.

So I retreated inward, grew maudlin and morose, became unbearable to live with. But during my late summer hibernation two books have pulled me through, dragged me back to the world again. Both concern the interactions and engagements between humans and non-humans, wildness and domesticity, love, awe and wonder. And both perhaps not coincidentally are written by fellows of Cambridge colleges, who are friends and who have contributed in one way or another to each others’ books.

H is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s powerful and moving story of training a goshawk. She and I were contemporaries at Cambridge and we met a couple of times. We shared an interest in the relationships between humans and animals and I was in awe of her knowledge and passion for falconry, mesmerised by her intellect and eloquence. Little did I know, as we stood drinking a cup of tea in her college garden sharing thoughts on hawks and polar bears, that she was deeply grieving for her father and living a half-wild life with her goshawk Mabel. Her book is an uplifting memoir of how training Mabel helped drag Macdonald out of her grief. But it is also a fascinating account of the history and culture of falconry. By the last page I wanted to walk through fields in search of rabbits and pheasants, to get my skin scratched and my hair messed up from pushing myself through hedges and into woodlands, to feel the weight of a bird of prey on my hand.

From H is for Hawk I picked up Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places. From his Cambridge home MacFarlane sets out to find the wild places of Britain and Ireland, places devoid of humanity and human history. But in his search he comes to the slow realisation that such places do not exist. The wild expanses of the Scottish highlands or the west of Ireland were once filled with people before Clearances and Famine swept human life aside. He discovers that ‘the wild’ cannot be separated from ‘the human’, they exist together. He discovers wildness in a weed pushing up through a crack in a pavement, in a spider web in the corner of a room, in an abandoned factory. The book takes the reader to the far reaches of mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye, to Anglesey, Dorset, the Burren, even to Essex. In writing the book, he travelled to places I have been to and love and to places I have never heard of. His evocative writing carried my thoughts away from Leamington Spa to these magnificent parts of the archipelago and my soul soared.

By the end of these two books I felt ready to write again, able to communicate again, ready to return to the world. These books helped the dark places in my mind open up to the continuities between past and present, human and other-than-human, life and death.

Next on my list of uplifting books? Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s awaiting me on my bedside table right now.



Arviat shoreline, October 2007

Arviat shoreline, October 2007

I remember an afternoon in Arviat, over a decade ago, talking with Joe Karetak about the sea. Joe has lived his life on the west coast of Hudson Bay, travelling across the open sea by boat in summer, and on the sea ice by snowmobile in winter and spring, hunting seals, beluga whales and polar bears, and fishing for arctic char. He knows a thing or two about the sea. Like all Inuit hunters, a great deal of Joe’s time at sea is spent watching and waiting – waiting for the tide to turn, waiting for migratory animals to arrive, waiting for a seal to surface – and weighing up alternatives. So many hours, days, years, lifetimes of waiting, quietly being attentive and watchful, preparing for sudden bursts of activity and action. The anthropologists Nuccio Mazzullo and Tim Ingold refer to this as ‘alert idleness’. As a result of all this watching and waiting, Inuit hunters possess a deep knowledge of the marine environment and its animals.

And something Joe said to me that day has stayed with me ever since. Being at sea is a ‘humbling experience’ he said. ‘The environment leads and you follow. The sea controls you’. Wise words. We need to accept our own humility in our engagements and interactions with the marine environment. The sea is awesome and powerful. We, by comparison, are puny, and no technology we have invented can match that power.

Arviaraarjuq at sunset, autumn 2006

Arviaraarjuq at sunset, autumn 2006

Life lived on the sea moves at a different pace. It can take a while to accept that. Each time we’ve move aboard Carina we’ve had to readjust to a slower pace, to moving with the rhythms of the sea, to staying put when necessary, to moving on when the time is right. It can be difficult at times to explain that we don’t know when we’ll reach our destination, and we don’t know how long we’ll stay there once we arrive. Wind direction and strength, tides, currents, swells, waves, storms, fog, hours of daylight – these are what guide us.

Sure, we can tweak our sails to gain an extra knot of speed, but a distance that took two hours to cover yesterday might take seven hours to cover today; and the calm seas of today might be whipped into a frenzy tomorrow. Who knows.

The trick is to let go, to accept that the sea is more powerful than we are, and to go with the flow. To wait it out when that’s what’s required, and to be ready to move on when the sea permits. And, like hunters in Arviat, to wait and watch, and in that waiting time to grow into ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the sea and of ourselves.

Paul Pemik's boat, near Tikiraarjuq, August 2006

Paul Pemik’s boat, near Tikiraarjuq, August 2006