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Pluvialis meets a Goshawk

Helen MacDonald (Pluvialis) goes for a walk in the woods of Kazakhstan and meets a goshawk:

Just near here, I looked up and thought I saw a man standing in a tree. That’s what my brain told me, momentarily. A man in a long overcoat leaning slightly to one side.

And then I saw it wasn’t a man, but a goshawk.

Moments like this are very illuminating. I’d never thought before, much, about the actual phenomenology of human-hawk resemblance, the one that must have brought forth all those mythological hawk-human bonds I've studied for so long.

I looked at a hawk in a tree, but I saw a man. How curious.

This goshawk must have been eighty feet away, so dark against the bright morning sun, so I couldn’t see whether he was facing me or the river. His short head and snaky neck craned: he was looking at me.

I raised my binoculars to my eyes as slowly as I could, half-closing my eyes so my lashes fringed the glare. There. There he was. The glare wasn’t so bad. I could see his edges very clearly. The light was very bright. But I could also faintly see the horizontal barring on his chest feathers. This was an adult male goshawk, and he looked very different from the ones at home. He reminded me of old photographs of goshawks flown by falconers on the northwest frontier. Hell, he was one of these goshawks. He had a dark, dark head with a flaring pale eyebrow, and the bars on his chest were close-set and far from the hazy, broken lines of European birds. Imagine tracing—with a ruler—each horizontal line of a narrow-ruled notebook with a thick, dark-grey felt-tip pen. That’s what his front looked like, through the glare. And he was standing on a bare branch and making up his mind what I was, exactly, and what he should do about it.

Slowly, he unfolded his wings, as if putting on a coat, and then, rather quietly and leisurely, he took to the air, one long leg and loosely-clenched foot trailing as he went. I was astonished by how long-winged he was, and how much he looked like a big — albeit long-tailed — falcon. His shape was very different from the goshawks at home. He was a migrant gos; he'd travelled down mountains and across the plains to winter here.

Happy Pluvialis! I wandered back to camp, had a snooze, compared bird notes, smoked a cigarette and had a cup of coffee. Halimjan made soup for lunch; there it was, bubbling in the cast-iron pot over the gas flame and we were sitting around our red plastic table chewing on stale bread waiting for the soup, and all our heads went up at once. A noise like ripping, tearing hessian, like a European Jay, only with real terror in it, was coming towards us right there and we watched — and slow as syrup and fast as a blink all at once, came the male gos trying his damnest to catch a magpie; they flashed right through the trees in front of the table, and gos nearly had a foot to the magpie before he saw us — five humans and a fire and a truck and a Giant Red Table right below him — ack! — wave off! wave off! — and the magpie dove downwards to the fork of a branch, crouching like a man avoiding a blow, and the gos spooled away through the trees. He looked like a coin falling through water, flashing silver and grey. Some kind of metal. A very fierce one. Potassium, Sodium, Goshawk.

Wow!  Tomorrow I am going to Waterstones to place an order for her book.


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