Gents in a landscape hang above their lands. Their long keen shadows trace peninsulas on fields.(Denise Riley)
Englishness, Welshness, flow blankly out around them. Hawks in good jackets lean into the wind, shriek ‘lonely I:
This sight is mine, but I can’t think I am’.
Text by Helen Macdonald
116 Hawks, real or imagined, have occupied a troubling political space in twentiethcentury art. Often they function as mirrors of the self, revealing hidden totalitarian urges against which a man might battle, as in T.H. White’s The Goshawk (1951). Sometimes they are fascism personified, as in Henry Williamson’s frightening nature-fable The Peregrine’s Saga (1923) or more general exemplars of the world-as-will, of which Ted Hughes’ ‘Hawk Roosting’ is perhaps the best known. Its manners are tearing off heads. Hawks generally figure as placeholders for dreams of power, vision, and control, for a space where sentimentality and morality is absent, and the world is male, male, male. “I fly up” says Hughes’ hawk, “and the world revolves around me. It is all mine”. [i]
In more recent works, from 1997’s The Falconer, Iain Sinclair’s experimental biopic of infamous filmmaker and falcon-breeder Peter Whitehead, to the recent works of artist-asshaman Marcus Coates, hawks have been used to interrogate notions of personal transformation, empathy, obsession, and the place of wildness in contemporary culture. The grand themes of vision and power are still central but here they are often bound in a more playful or subversive manner to the persona of the artist. In 1999 Marcus Coates had himself tied high up the trunk of a scots pine in an attempt to experience the phenomenal world of a goshawk. The documentary photograph Goshawk (Self Portrait) shows a tiny man with bent legs attached to a distant tree; it is clear he should not be there; the attempt is rich with pathos; hubristic, ridiculous, agonising in practice, remorselessly mocking our desire for omnipotent vision. [ii]
The negotiation between hawk and human examined in these works has rich historical precedent; it has been conducted for millennia in the practice of falconry, the use of trained hawks to catch wild game. From her films on eaglefalconry in Kazakhstan (Valley of Castle (Hunting Eagles)) [iii] to her new piece Three Films on Hawks and Men (2009), the films of Ruth Maclennan have investigated this negotiation; the bond between (male) handler and hawk; and the masculinisation of the spaces through which the hawks fly. Maclennan’s hawk films are enriched by their repeated use of the same visual lexicon: hawk, man, landscape: and therewith, male power, avian and human vision and an exploration of their spatial geographies. She is aware of how falconry is related to the construction and maintenance of male identity. For masculine qualities often considered in danger of being lost or marginalised in modern culture — wildness, power, strength, self-reliance and so on — have long been projected onto hawks. Through the psychologically charged identifications of hawk and trainer during the training process, the falconer is able to repossess these qualities while the hawk at the same time becomes ‘civilized’. Needless to say, there are few female falconers, and they do not feature in Maclennan’s work.
Maclennan has taken the notion of hawkas- subject perhaps further than any other artist. Rather than possess or become the hawk, as in the field of revisionist taxidermy, or in the transformative rituals of Coates, she has instead sought to lend the hawk a degree of agency in the work. In The Hawk and the Tower (2007-9), Maclennan resists the lure of the pastoral with glorious panache. A small camera is harnessed to a trained Harris hawk. Its hander flies it back and forth from fist to rooftops around Archway Tower in north London. The resulting footage is a disorienting collage of air and punctuated urban landscape. The inability of the hawk-as-director to afford us the viewpoint we imagine and desire— that of the transcendental subject—is pointed. The signal is blurred; the images jerky, incoherent. The side of a building slides across the screen. Snowy interference. The frame rises and falls spasmodically as the hawk beats its wings. Colours saturate and bleed. Pigeons clatter up in alarm; the viewer is bewildered by the alien nature of an urban nature-film filmed by nature.
Less formally experimental, Three Films on Hawks and Men is a more sustained investigation into the various subjectivities offered through the relationship of hawk and handler, landscape and filmmaker. Fell, which I will discuss in detail, follows a party of men, hawks and a dog hunting rabbits in rushy moorland. These falconers occupy the high places, where the gaze down upon lower ground mirrors the view of the ‘hawk …and the helmeted airman’[iv], and where such elevation implies knowledge and control [v] [figure 1].
The second film, His Brilliant Eye, brings the lens close to hawk and owner, wondering at the forms of intimacy such a relationship might take. We see a goshawk and its owner talking to one another — the man in slow, reassuring tones, the hawk in expressive twitters and yelps. The mirroring of hawk and man and the pace and pause of shots that cut between hawk’s head and the expression on its handler’s face leave us in no doubt that love is being shown here, though the 18 precise form of this attachment is of course obscure.
It would be simple to read this as a narcissistic gaze in which hawk is a mirror of its keeper. Yet this is not entirely the case. There is much more to be said on the gendering of hawks, but perhaps it is enough here to draw attention to a 1936 quote by the falconer Gilbert Blaine which shows how goshawks have long been marked as female. Blaine had no time for this species. He reported that he couldn’t put up with their moods and tempers. They were neither ladylike nor English, but foreigners, madwomen, incomprehensible murderesses who slayed for the fun of it. Blaine disdains these versions of outlaw femininity: One cannot feel for a goshawk the same respect and admiration that one does for a peregrine. The names usually bestowed upon her are a sufficient index to her character. Such names as ‘Vampire’, ‘Jezebel’, ‘Swastika’ or even ‘Mrs Glasse’ aptly fit her, but would ill become a peregrine[vi].
Garden, the final film in the trilogy shows us just that: an empty garden populated by tethered hawks, plants in ericaceous pots, and bright cagebirds, resembling nothing so much as those fantastic assemblages of birds in seventeenth-century Flemish oils. On the lawn, hawks loaf and bathe. This is a place of leisure. It is where hawks become not-hawks, where they discard their familiar meanings. No longer exemplars of the lethal, aristocratic gaze, these birds bathe and slosh around in baths, beat their open wings to dry, luxuriate in preening damp feathers “The infant Tarquin” wrote T.H. White in surprise as he watched his hawk bathe for the first time, “had suddenly become a charlady at Margate”. [vii] Garden is also noteworthy in that one of the hawks shown is a half-blind Siberian goshawk a kind of Tiresias of the mews. We might consider what a blind goshawk might be, in our understanding of the categories of animal; like a bloodhound with no sense of smell, it forces consideration of what we presume an animal to be made.
Importantly, there is no death in these films. No visible death, that is. Death is the films’ hidden motivation, but we do not see it, or indeed at any time an animal dies. There are traces. We see blood matting the hawk’s face, fur on the beak of the goshawk. But when the rabbit breaks cover and the hawks pursue, we see no rabbit, we see no kill. In this way Fell rejects the narrative arc of the genre of the hunting film. It refuses us that expected resolution. Our inability not compulsion to empathise with the figures on screen while they search for something hidden to us is of course precisely the point. Our helpless investment in the narrative of the hunt as we yearn to see what they are looking for, following their gazes — all this forces us to consider our allegiance to the desire for power and how vision is implicated in such desires. But we are disallowed this single view: Maclennan moves her camera from the following shots to one where the lens looks up from a refuge in rushes. We are forced to take the rabbits’-eye view. Looking up, never down. Hiding, not hunting.
What we also learn from watching is that hawking involves particularly careful kinds of movement across a landscape, certain forms of wordless understanding that are rather beautiful to watch, and a fierce quality of attention shared between hawk and man. The bond between human and bird is palpable: they mirror each other’s bodily attitudes. As they near the presumed hiding-place of the quarry both assume similar changes of shape: standing tall, anticipating, peering into the rushes, waiting for the rabbit to bolt.
The desire of the documentary-maker to give us a disembodied view from nowhere is repeatedly questioned in relation to these hawkish dreams of narrative power. Most often the camera follows the falconers at a distance. Their backs are towards us. They are filmed and followed as if animals themselves; wary, impatient with interruption. They look as if they are looking for something lost. Only slowly is the quality of attention apparent. It is the quality of attention attendant on hunting. Searching. There are periods of intense stillness. The falconer looks at the hawk, the hawk at the ground. As the location of a rabbit is suspected, narrowed down, the movements of the men slow until time is almost suspended; there is a slow movement to crisis by figures half obscured by reeds.
And then at 2:01 the dream of disembodied observation is shattered as the second falconer turns to check what effect the camera operator will have on the hunt. He is assessing Maclennan’s presence in terms of whether, if a rabbit breaks, its behaviour will be affected by her position. And whether she will be able to record what happens. The camera is not innocent; it falls straight into the geometries of masculine hunting geography it seeks only to record. The documentary maker will change the shape of the flight; affect the outcome, in a landscape now comprised of the imagined reactivity of the quarry. For a fellside rabbit, rushes are for hiding. And people—in that lovely 1930s phrase—have danger valency.
Again and again, Fell plays similar games with our easy identifications and assumptions. The lost object is always there; sometimes we become it – as in the rabbits’ eye view – and sometimes we are thrown into the persona of the outlookgeographer, the possessor of the hawk’s keen eye. The notion of an ahistorical, aestheticised wild landscape is gently prised away in a panning shot that slows and holds on the landscape until it becomes a framed paean to wilderness. Yet the scars and patterns on those distant moors are not cloud shadows but the signs of rotational heather burning for grouse management. There is no innocence in these landscapes: they have been created and shaped by the demands of a sporting elite. Three million acres were converted from pasture and forest to moor in the nineteenth century, a period in which, as John MacKenzie has shown, “the progressive restriction of social access to hunting and the elaboration of its rules and etiquette had a tendency to transform hunting into a predominantly male pursuit.”[viii] To complicate matters further, in these landscapes of driven shooting interests, raptors are generally viewed as vermin, rather than hunting partners.
The contested myths of landscape and nature are ultimately the subject of these films, mediated particularly strongly by Maclennan’s abrupt changes in camera angle that work to disarticulate our notion of what a hawk is, and what documenting a hawk might be. The camera looks up, worm’s eye view, at a Harris hawk on the fist, white under-tail coverts fanned, crowcoloured wings half-open. Or down onto a goshawk, lens inches from its broad mantle as it pulls at a rabbit leg. Sometimes Maclennan gives us the organising, surveying consciousness of the planner, as in the 360-degree panning shot around the garden. And sometimes she is — and we become — the hidden animal, the hidden subject of death upon which all these formations and geographies of hunting and maleness coincide.
We might also conclude from this film that the relationship between humans and animals in hunting cultures is complex. These hawks cannot be seen merely as tools, nor solely as naturalisations of male vision and power, however deeply they may be involved in this mythos. It is important, I suspect, to consider the kinds of hawks and the kinds of men involved, and to look beyond easy concepts of hunting in which the animals are always the oppressed. For example the captive-bred Harris hawks in Fell are a species which hunt cooperatively in family groups in the wild, [ix] and one might consider the hawking party to be a more equitable group in which the hawks have recruited humans and dogs in their hunting practices, just as the humans have recruited the hawk and trained the dog. Agency runs both ways, as in The Hawk and the Tower. Perhaps we might go so far as to say that in its resistance to a single viewpoint and in its generosity of approach, Maclennan’s work presents the hawk-falconer relationship as being between human and nonhuman persons, as in Siberian Yukaghir society, for example, where persons can take on a variety of forms, of which human beings are only one. [x] This decentring of the human is perhaps the most radical element of these films, and reveals Maclennan as an artist unafraid to approach difficult political and philosophical terrain with an open, hawk-like eye.
[i] Ted Hughes, ‘Hawk Roosting’, in Lupercal, Faber and Faber,
[ii] A reproduction is available at http://tinyurl.com/ykvdljw
[iii] Valley of Castle (Hunting Eagles) is at:
[iv] W.H Auden, ‘XXX’ in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and
Dramatic Writings 1927-39, Faber and Faber, London, 1986, p.46
[v] For an excellent review of the ideology of ‘outlook geography’
see David Matless, Landscape and Englishness, Reaktion Books,
[vi] Gilbert Blaine, Falconry, Philip Allen, London,1936.
[vii] T.H. White, The Goshawk (2007), New York Review of Books,
New York, p. 76. First published by Jonathan Cape in 1951.
[viii] John M. MacKenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting,
Conservation and British Imperialism. Manchester University Press,
Manchester, 1988, p. 21.
[ix] see Bednarz, James, ‘Cooperative hunting in Harris Hawks
(Parabuteo unicinctus) Science 25 March 1988: Vol. 239. no. 4847,
[x] See: Rane Willerslev, Not Animal, Not Not-Animal: Hunting,
Imitation and Empathetic Knowledge among the Siberian
Yukaghirs, The Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 2004), pp. 629-652