He was in his early thirties and he hated everybody. Perhaps hatred is too strong a word. He despaired of everybody, especially in aggregate, except that that is also how he loved human beings the most, in groups making things, building things, working. He definitely despaired of himself, except when he was engaged in some great enterprise, doing something he considered both difficult and worthwhile. To some extent the more difficult the more worthwhile; he was exactly the sort of person who does things merely because they are nearly impossible, and who knows on some level that he is making things infinitely more difficult for himself, and can't and won't stop.
Falconry was out of fashion. He had never met a falconer. He had corresponded with one or two, who were mostly in far and inaccessible regions such as Bavaria or the Isle of Wight, and whose letters would come to him six months late, mis-spelt, covered in birdshit and usually in a language he didn't speak. He had one and a half books on falconry, and the one was Bert's Treatise on Hawks and Hawking, printed in 1619. And the goshawk is renowned as the most difficult of hawks, the moody one, the crazy one, the one you can never, ever actually be sure of. (I told you that he liked to make his enterprises nearly impossible.)
He only knew one method of training a goshawk, the one from that 1619 manual. You cannot use most methods on a hawk. They will die rather than give in to a human. So an austringer (this is the correct word for a person flying a goshawk, which is not after all a falcon) must pit human will against the bird's in a way such that the bird does not know it is happening. The way to do this, in 1619, is by 'watching' it, which is to say preventing it from sleeping for three days and nights together, so that it becomes so exhausted it is willing to sleep on a human fist, and then after that will consider that fist a place of safety. Of course the human cannot sleep at all either, and must have the bird on an arm all that time, the arm at a right angle, the leather glove on the hand...
... and the notebook on the other knee, for White had decided to get his living by hawking: not only by keeping himself and the bird, eventually, on what he caught, but by writing a book about the entire process, and selling it, and thereby paying for things like rent and eventually other hawks. He conceived it as a way of removing himself from the entirety of human existence, because he would be with his birds as much as one has to, which is to say, ninety percent of the time, outdoors in all weathers; the book is his concession to the practicalities, which will tell you something.
It is such a terrible idea all around that I cannot help but love him for it.
And he did write the book with the hawk on his other hand, and it is a good one. There is White, with his desperate self-hatred and his aggravation at us (whoever we are), and his prejudices that come from being an English gentleman born in 1906, and his total inability to deal with, well, anything, and his indomitable and unbreakable will and determination: and there is the mad free silence of the goshawk. This is one of the few books I have seen that talk about patience as a practice, as something to be voluntarily learned, because the goshawk can interpret even an upset expression on your face. In the nights without sleep and the fourteen-hour days of the bird flying directly at him and the endless whistling to try to get it to learn its call, you can see him wrestle even his anger and brokenness into his love and his love into that infinite unyielding patience. It is a thing to watch. He spends himself and spends himself and spends himself, and the hawk comes to his hand one day, and he smashes a glass of champagne in the fire. I have never seen anyone happier, in some of this book, or less, in other parts.
Because falconry will not in the end leave you heart-whole. He did learn the art (and that there have been advances, since 1619, and one no longer has to go without that much sleep), but this was not the book with which he made his fortune (again). The next year he would write The Sword in the Stone, with its scenes in the mews-- those are all birds he knew, birds he owned and loved and worked with-- and make himself immortal. He would publish The Goshawk reluctantly, in the 1950s, reluctantly because it said too much about him. It has drifted in and out of print. The New York Review of Books has brought it out most recently, which is how I have it.
And it is bitter, and sometimes surprisingly funny, and very beautiful, and well worth reading.
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