Majestic flight: hawks have been considered sacred in cultures throughout history.
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Hawk eyed: how to write about birds of prey

From sacred symbolism in ancient mythology to paeans by 20th-century naturalists, hawks and eagles have always been lauded in art and literature.

Anyone who has ever stopped to watch a hawk in flight will know that this is one of the natural world’s most elegant phenomena. In many traditions, hawks are sacred: Apollo’s messengers for the Greeks, sun symbols for the ancient Egyptians and, in the case of the Lakota Sioux, embodiments of clear vision, speed and single-minded dedication.

Yet, for all their grandeur, airborne hawks are difficult to describe. It takes the finest of naturalists to capture a sense of their wonder – those such as Edwin Way Teale, who, in one of the most affecting pieces of nature writing I have ever read, describes a field trip to eastern Pennsylvania’s “hawkways” to see how raptors from all over New England seek out the powerful updraughts that run along the Kittatinny Ridge and sail “almost without an effort – just as, for ages, their ancestors had done – mile after mile on their long journey to a winter home”.

This passage, from Teale’s all but forgotten classic The Lost Woods (1945), celebrates not just the birds’ grace and power but also their attunement to the land, in words at once elegant and unsentimental. It is painful when that celebration is overshadowed. “During the early years of the present century,” Teale writes, “and even into the 1930s, many of these birds got no farther than the cliff on which we stood. Taking advantage of the fact that the migrating hawks frequently were forced close to this observation point . . . local gunners and big-city ‘sports’ blasted away, riddling the slow-moving birds as they soared, almost helplessly, within range of their guns.” Wagon-loads of the “dead, maimed and dying” were left to rot at the foot of the cliff: “The stench of their decomposition filled the air all during the height of the migration period.”

“I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” wrote the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers – a sentiment all too typical of this uncompromising writer, whose good advice that we should “unhumanise our views a little” was all too often tainted by disgust for his fellow human beings (in one poem, he declared that he would rather be “a worm in a wild apple than a son of man”).

Like many a nature lover, Jeffers succumbed to despair as he witnessed the degradation of his homeland. It is difficult not to share that anger as we in turn register what is being done, for sport or money, or out of plain ignorance, to the land, the seas and the creatures that share them with us.

Edwin Way Teale was always a more hopeful spirit, even as he saw and criticised such crimes – he was an “appreciator” who knew that lament, elegy and protest must be tempered by out-and-out celebration of what endures. Having begun his working life as an entomologist, Teale found pleasure in the smallest details of creaturely life, from the “golden throng” of his beehives to the day-by-day changes that he eulogises in his 1953 volume Circle of the Seasons. Like his hero, the English botanist Reginald Farrer, he was always mindful of what Farrer called “those things that we all possess inviolable for ever”.

I can think of nothing more despicable than the hunters who lined up to cut down Teale’s birds at the most vulnerable point of their seasonal migration but eventually their sport was brought to an end by a group of conservationists who purchased the Kittatinny ridge-top and turned it into the world’s first hawk sanctuary.

It may be that some of those good people were the newly enlightened descendants of previous hawk-killers. Some hope remains that Jeffers’s despair can be trumped by Teale’s celebratory sense of a “timelessness” in nature, even if “all around us are the inconstant and the uncertain”.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder