Here’s something I nearly did a few weeks ago: ruin someone’s peregrine forever. I flushed a woodpigeon underneath it that I'd thought was a pheasant, an elementary falconry error that still irrigates my heart with ice-water: the last thing you want a gamehawk to do is to start chasing pigeons. And I made it impossible not to. Up from the stubble clapped the pigeon, down came the falcon at about seventy miles an hour, and the pigeon did what all pigeons do under such circumstances: flee. Very fast. For about ten seconds there was a tailchase of terrifying intent. They came right over my head, no more than a foot away. I could see the bright golden eye of the pigeon, the flexing of those strange, dull grey feathers on the pigeon’s carpal joints and the cloud-pink flush on its front. And the peregrine about three feet behind it, a grim, hooded monster the colour of split flint and chalk.
I wanted the pigeon to escape. Very much. And it did. I knew had committed a huge social gaffe, and spent the rest of the day in ghastly self-recrimination. I’ve been apologising profusely to lots of people recently. I know how irritating this is. I apologised myself into near-tears after a terribly bad radio interview I did, and I apologised profusely to the gamehawk’s owner, and right now I am having to stop myself sending emails to everyone I know apologising for being a terrible, terrible person and worse than useless friend. Which I think I probably am, because I’m so dreadfully bent on avoiding putting myself in situations where I might be rejected by people I love. But anyway, that’s boring; I’m not the important thing here: what’s important is this: that episode with the gamehawk I worried I'd ruined started me thinking about gamehawking again, because I’d not seen it for years.
If you’ve not seen this kind of falconry, the principle is simple enough. You find some gamebirds, usually by eye in this lowland country. You assess the ground. You assess the wind conditions. You sneak slightly away and loose your falcon. The falcon climbs up into the sky, mounting in tight circles, and then waits on overhead, anything up to a thousand feet above you—though with these small fields, lower is better, because otherwise the gamebirds will have found safety in the hedges long before she has fallen far enough to get a foot to them. When she’s in the right position, you run like mad towards the gamebirds. The gamebirds fly up, the falcon stoops down, fantastically beautiful and terrifying, and if you’re lucky enough, will clout/grab one of the gamebirds and you can have pheasant or partridge for dinner.
What I started thinking about, after the nightmare with the pigeon, was how strange is the whole process of running in to flush quarry under a falcon. When you fly a goshawk, the world is bloody and taut with lines of prospect and ambush, but far more comprehensible. You are close to the ground and the hawk is usually fairly close to the ground too, planing over it in fast terrain-following hunting flight. But flying a falcon is not like that. Running in to flush game for a falcon is even more not like that. It makes you disorientated in a way that I suppose must be a little like doing a loop in an aeroplane. Normally people relate their positions to things on the ground, orient themselves against things on the same plane. You are walking down this street, between two houses, under these trees.
Now try looking up at a moving object the size of a folded newspaper, six hundred feet up, while running across a field. Then make sure you’re running to the right place, a tussocky depression the size of a coffee-table that is a hundred yards away in the field and you think the pheasant is there, though it may have run away, and you’re checking to see whether it’s running or flying or was ever there at all. You convince yourself it was never there at all. You know it is there. You glance up at the sky again. The falcon is pulling over in a smooth curve, but is still behind where you are, and you know she is waiting for you to flush the pheasant, if only you knew where it was. The clay sticks to your heels and slows you down. Up there she moves with the ease of a figure-skater but down here you’re in a world made of slowly freezing mud, and even the air seems to be getting harder to run through. You look down again, then up, then down. Your brain isn’t good at this. It starts to brim and roll with confusion. It’s not just that you are running while staring first at bright sky with a speck in it, then the ground, then the sky again. It’s also that you are trying to construct what will happen next scenarios in your head, and at this point they’re narrowing fast, towards point zero, where you let go of any power to affect things whatsoever, and the hawk and the quarry take over. But it’s confusing also because of this other, strange fact: as you run, you must work out where the falcon is going to be in three seconds, which some visceral part of your calculating mind knows is how long it will take to get to the point where the pheasant will flush - and you do this the same way you do everything in falconry. You don’t mathematically plot, taking her relative speed into account, where she will be. That’s not how falconry works. You work out where she will be by imagining you are her. You put yourself in her mind. This is a much quicker, more unconscious, and generally better way to work out what an animal is about to do, as anyone who has ever kept one will know. But it brings a problem. It is this: because you work out where the hawk will be by imagining yourself to be the hawk, as everyone does, you are both up there, looking down and down here, looking up. Sometimes this strange splitting makes you feel you are running under yourself, or away from yourself. Sometimes you feel you are a small animal under the falcon’s gaze. Sometimes you feel like a dotted line drawn in an exercise book, one of those drawings in which all elements of a trigonometry exercise are labeled with soft italic lower-case letters. Sometimes you become so invested in the falcon and the pheasant's relative positions that your consciousness cuts loose entirely, splits into one or the other, first the falcon looking down, second the pheasant looking up, and you float over the ground as if you couldn’t possibly affect anything in the world. There is no way you can flush this pheasant. You’re not here. Time stretches and slows. There’s a sense of panic that happens at this point, a little buffet of fear that’s about annihilation and your place in the world. But then the pheasant is flushed, the falcon stoops, and perhaps the pheasant is caught. When things go well, the emotion that gamehawking conjures more than any other is relief. Because all the lines that connect heart and head and future possibilities, those lines that also connect you with the hawk and the pheasant and with life and death, become safe, become tied together in a small muddle of feathers and gripping talons that stand in mud in the middle of a small field in the middle of a small county in a small country on the edge of winter.