Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tom McGuane on Raptors

Novelist Tom McGuane, while noted for his horses and pointing dogs, has always had a feel for birds of prey,  notices them, and on occasion writes lyrically about them. There is a vivid set piece in the novel Something to Be Desired, in which which the protagonist, LucienTaylor,  takes his young son, who does not live with him, to lure a Prairie falcon in to trap on a pigeon, using a falconry practice to band the bird to study. The child is frightened, startled  by the bird's falling from the sky like a hammer onto the  luckless bait bird, but Lucien is ecstatic, with the emotions of a true hawk trapper.
"There were feathers everywhere, and the hawk beat in a blur of cold fury, striking at Lucien with his downcurving knife of a beak and superimposing his own screech over the noise of James. "We've got him, James!" James, quiet now, looked ready to run. The hawk had stopped all motion but kept his beak marginally parted so that the small, hard black tongue could be seen advancing and retreating slightly within his mouth. 'It's a prairie falcon. It's the most beautiful bird in the world. I want to come back as a prairie falcon.' "

This is a man who has been there. Here is another lyrical piece, from the more recent Driving  On the Rim:

"With my new leisure following upon my indictment and my failure as a house painter, I had time to walk the woody creek bottoms where I observed the short-winged woodland hawks, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned, speeding through the trees with uncanny nimbleness. I had several times watched prairie falcons diving into blackbirds when I walked around the uplands, and the chaos they made seemed to briefly fill the sky. These jaunts were hardly adventurous, as I never went more than a few minutes from town, but it was greatly reassuring to find wildlife so close to humanity. In fact, I could still make out the old water tower through the trees where I first came upon the goshawk, a northern goshawk, to be precise. Since I came upon her unawares and she was going about her goshawk business under my eye, it made a tremendous impression on me: almost blue-black on her back with a creamy and precisely barred breast. She was swiveling her head from side to side, broadcasting her oddly relentless screams. Over time, I would see her often, hunting, soaring, sleeping. And she saw me often enough that she no longer fled at my sight, moving me by her acceptance."
Tom once wrote to me "Cutting horses are my falcons". True enough, but he also has an eye for the real thing. Sometimes I'm almost jealous of his ability to paint a picture, even in this throwaway line in a handwritten 1992 letter: "There is a Peregrine living around my place this summer. Saw him come down the face of black thunderhead seamed with lightning and kill a pigeon on the County road.."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Re passage hawks, I have always loved this paragraph from Gilbert Blaine's "Falconry," in which he describes newly trapped passage (haggard actually) falcons:

"Sitting nervous and upright on the pole in [the] hawk-house... you were at once struck at the difference between them and eyasses. The erect carriage, the flat back with a depression between the shoulders, the trim, crisp plumage, bleached by sun and wind, with a powdery bloom upon it, the clear yellow of the cere and feet, the perfect symmetry of the contour, all denote a quality that is lacking in the eyass. Here is the perfection of health and condition. Take one on your hand and remove her hood. What a brilliant eye and noble expression! There is wildness, shyness, but no guile. Hood her and put her back at once; you do not wish to cause her any distress. You will never again see this hawk looking so splendid and so beautiful. It is all soon lost in captivity. But even after years of confinement, the experienced eye will detect the difference between the passage hawk and the eyass."