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

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit