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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State