Monday, July 16, 2007 at 6:12PM
A somewhat fragile Helen Macdonald visits a falconry fair and still manages to see things that no one else notices:
The worst moment of the fair, though? Indubitably the golden eagle. A tiercel, but still with killing talons the size and thickness of your index finger, sitting on a bow-perch. He was very chilled. His plumy hackles blew in the wind as he loafed, cocking an eye up to the thermally sky to watch kites, swallows and hobbies passing through, far above. He was surrounded by people, and even I was impressed by how utterly unconcerned he was. A photographer kneeled three feet from his broad mailed chest, pushing a macro lens into his face. About five inches from his face. Wow, I thought. That’s probably not that advisable, because the eagle’s leash gives it, oh, a good five feet leeway. I have been grabbed by an eagle. When you are grabbed by an eagle – mine was by the shoulder – you actually cannot do anything. You become entirely helpless. Not only because an eagle is stronger than you, but because shock cuts in almost instantly. You understand, these birds kill wolves. Read that again. They really do. And deer.
So as I watched this photographer, I was faintly nervous. Another camera appeared, and got even closer. The eagle looked a teeny bit less relaxed. And then, with a shock as if I'd put my hand into a plug socket while jumping waist-deep into an icy pool, I watched a tiny, fair-haired, not-very-good-at-walking eighteen-month old child walk unsteadily between the eagle and the photographer, brushing the front of the eagle as it did so. The eagle started in surprise, and leaned its snaky head forward, hackles risen, to clop at the child. It didn’t mean to touch the child, and it didn’t, but it was a mite hacked off. And I felt sick and dizzy. If the eagle had done what it might have done—grabbed the child—which would to it have been as rapid and as easy as someone putting out a hand to pick up a cup of tea, the child would have been dead in seconds. No-one seemed to notice, or see what had happened. For god’s sake, what is wrong with people? No-one would let a tiny toddler walk in front of a leopard, or a lion? Or would they? When I was in South Africa, many years ago, I visited a game farm where they bred King cheetahs. Which paced the fences, watching the crowds. You’d see families with small kids walking along, and a cheetah pacing elegantly along, just the other side of the chainlink, in step with the smallest and weakest child, eyes fixed, locked on them. “Look, Thomas!” I heard one woman say in delight. “The cheetah likes you best.” Christ.
Come to think of it, maybe she was seeing these things because she was feeling so fragile.