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Sparrowhawk Theology

by Chris Arthur

Sparrowhawks. Ink drawing by Vawdrey Taylor
Sparrowhawks. Ink drawing by Vawdrey Taylor

Is what interests us an indelible part of our personality, something that will find expression pretty much regardless of circumstances? Or is it something which might or might not develop, depending on outside influences? I have no way of knowing for certain, but I suspect I was predisposed to be interested in natural history, especially birds, but that it was through a special friendship that this inborn interest flowered in the particular way it did. Without Jab, sparrowhawks might never have meant much to me.

Jab was J. Arnold Benington (1903-1982), one of Northern Ireland’s best known naturalists. I count myself fortunate to have had him as a friend and teacher. A striking, white-haired man with a weather-beaten face and something of the fierce air of an Old Testament prophet, he taught biology at Friends’ School in Lisburn, the Quaker school I attended from age five until I was fourteen, when I left to continue my education in Belfast. Leaving made it easier for Jab – as he was universally known to pupils – to make the transition from teacher to friend. Our friendship was built on the strong foundation of a shared passion for the natural world. But despite our common interest in the plants and creatures around us, I came to understand them in a way that was radically at odds with his.

At weekends and in the holidays we spent hours together “in the field,” as Jab put it, bird-watching, photographing butterflies, on the track of foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, otters, or looking for rare orchids. The years of our friendship coincided with Northern Ireland’s Troubles, so our activities sometimes aroused suspicion. Looking for marsh fritillary caterpillars in the hills above Belfast, near a locale where, soon afterwards, a cache of explosives was discovered, we attracted the attention of an army patrol. We were questioned at gunpoint, searched, asked for identification, and given looks of disbelief when caterpillars were mentioned. But eventually our unlikely eccentricity satisfied the burly sergeant. He ordered his men back to their vehicle and even wished us good luck with our hunting. Checking out a long-eared owl’s roost at dusk nearly ended in tragedy. In a lonely stretch of woodland we strayed into the grounds of what turned out to be a judge’s house. His police bodyguards thought we were assassins, shouted out a challenge and almost opened fire. And on an expedition to the Mourne mountains to look for peregrines, we found multiple bullet cases ejected among the rocks in a remote gully, at whose head was a gnarled holly tree whose trunk was pocked and chipped by gunfire. It was chilling to realize that we’d stumbled on the spoor of terrorist training.

Jab’s natural history interests were wide-ranging. He designed and built a butterfly garden on some disused land; led ornithological expeditions to Iceland to study gyrfalcons; carried out wildflower surveys; was heavily involved in setting up the Copeland Island bird observatory; broadcast nature programmes for the BBC. He encouraged everything from taking bark rubbings to mapping the incidence of different types of fungi in a forest, to setting up moth light-traps and watching bats. He was also an accomplished wildlife artist and photographer. But of all the many things that fired his interest, Jab reserved a special place for sparrowhawks.

What was it about these birds that so fascinated him?

Thinking about it now, all these years later, I see sparrowhawks as a kind of contour line shimmering through the landscape of his life, a glowing nerve spooled through the maze of his personality that led him away from the flatlands of the commonplace towards the tantalizing altitudes of a never-quite-reached but always desired summit. Sparrowhawks drew him as helplessly as moths are drawn to a lighted window; they constituted a naturally occurring compass, pulling his attention to the enigma of a True North that was less a direction than an alluring sense of fleeting, fugitive presence that set his blood aflame. Sparrowhawks spoke in – were syllables of – a secret, sacred language; they sounded nature’s Om, reverberating with the promise of revelation.

I know I make it sound as if, for Jab, sparrowhawks sparked a kind of worship or idolatry. The picture that I’ve drawn suggests he was a slave to their magnetism. I’m presenting his hawk-watching more as obeisance than ornithology, a devotee’s response to a power that pulled him helplessly into orbit around it. Jab would have objected to such terms. He’d accuse me, perhaps with justification, of transference, of writing a pagan palimpsest of my own heresies across the orthodoxies of his faith. And yet I stand by what I’ve written. For him, sparrowhawks offered a portal leading from this world to another. Our days “in the field” seemed somewhere between pilgrimage and possession. However much he would have insisted that we were acting according to the scientific imperatives of biology, I felt as much acolyte as ornithologist whenever we were climbing to hawks’ nests, or examining the feathers strewn around plucking posts.

Jab was concerned that the use of organochloride pesticides threatened to decimate sparrowhawk numbers. His “The Decline of the Sparrowhawk, Accipiter Nisus, in Northern Ireland,” a paper contributed to the Irish Naturalists’ Journal in 1971, to cite just one of his many publications, records an alarming drop in numbers from the situation when he first began to take an interest in hawks as a sixteen-year-old schoolboy. His analysis of infertile eggs showed residues of dieldrin, DDT and other agricultural poisons then in widespread use. As well as poisoning the birds, these chemicals also affected shell-thickness, so that some eggs simply broke in the nest. Sparrowhawks were not the only raptors affected. At the start of The Peregrine, J.A. Baker writes:

For ten years I followed the peregrine. I was possessed by it. It was a grail to me. Now it has gone. The long pursuit is over. Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive. Many die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals. Before it is too late, I have tried to recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in, a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa. It is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still.

Jab likewise viewed his chosen grail as being in grave peril. He would have echoed Baker’s elegiac pessimism; his assessment of extraordinary beauty and wonder. To him, County Antrim was a land “as profuse and glorious as Africa.” Jab’s fears mirrored Baker’s about the birds he loved being marooned in a despoiled world, at risk of being lost forever.

Thankfully, the situation has improved. Peregrines and sparrowhawks have both increased their numbers since the parlous days when Jab and J.A. Baker were writing. But though they may have come back from the brink, sparrowhawks are still not common. Even when they do inhabit a locality, their talent for invisibility makes them seem scarce. A sighting is always something rare and special. As James Macdonald Lockhart puts it (in Raptor), the birds “rely on concealment,” so “the sparrowhawk must always be just out of sight; that is where you will find them.” “Just out of sight” seems a suitable territory for a grail to inhabit.

I have a black and white photograph on the wall beside my desk. It shows a newly hatched sparrowhawk chick crouched in a nest alongside three eggs, one of which, judging by the chip that holes the smooth arc of its beautifully mottled orb, is poised to hatch. I can picture the colours that the photo doesn’t show, the eggs’ rich background of creamy-white patterned with reddish brown. A feather from an adult hawk is visible among the untidy nest twigs. I took this photo years ago when I climbed with Jab to a hawk’s nest high in a spruce tree in Hillsborough forest. We needed climbing irons to reach it. (Jab was, of course, a licensed ringer.)

Looking at the photo reminds me of this wonderful passage in The Peregrine:

Sparrowhawks were always near me in the dusk, like something I meant to say but could never quite remember. Their narrow heads glared blindly through my sleep. I pursued them for many summers, but they were hard to find and harder to see, being so few and so wary. They lived a fugitive, guerilla life. In all the overgrown neglected places the frail bones of generations of sparrowhawks are sifting down now into the deep humus of the woods. They were a banished race of beautiful barbarians, and when they died they could not be replaced.

I like the idea of a secret ossuary of sparrowhawk bones, a wooded sepulchre in some wild neglected place where the relics of the hawks are slowly absorbed into the ground, the ashes of their fire returning to the earth. The bones of the hawk chick I photographed all those years ago would have completed this metamorphosis by now, its elements dismantled and dispersed into other structures. Perhaps if we could trace its constituent molecules we’d find that some have been incorporated into tree branches – branches which, every now and then, support the weight of one of its descendants, their yellow talons clutching the wood as they scan the forest for prey.

Thinking of that chick and the eggs that would have hatched into its siblings makes me think of what came before them and what followed – the bloodline of hawks stretching back into history and prehistory and on into the future, and I wonder how to read the signature mark they leave upon the world; how to understand the fact of their existence across time. What meanings do these birds purvey? How should we read the text they write on the world’s pages with their violent presence?

The speed and manoeuvrability of sparrowhawks, their ability to jink and turn on the wing, to gain height as rapidly as they can plummet, the single-mindedness with which they pursue their prey, their mastery of the art of ambush, and the breathtaking acceleration they can summon – all combine to make them formidable predators. Their principal prey consists of small birds. Woodpigeons are pretty much the largest species they’ll attempt. The kill can be so quick that it’s over before you’ve realized what’s happening. But sometimes, whether because of relative weights and sizes, or a hawk’s inexperience, it’s a brutally prolonged business. I’ve seen a pigeon only stunned by the impact of the attack being plucked and eaten alive, its desperate movements lessening as the hawk – standing on its victim’s breast – stripped the meat from its still fluttering body. And yet whatever ugliness attends the kill, for me it casts no pall upon the beauty of these birds. I’m puzzled by this. The ferocity of their predation, the sheer bloodiness of the butchery they mete out, would make it easy to see them as anything but beautiful.

What do hawks suggest about the nature of the world?

For me, these beautiful raptors tore to shreds the old, simplistic concepts of deity that were propagated with such aggressive naivety when I was growing up in Northern Ireland. Jab was one of the propagators. Before every biology lesson at school, he wrote up on the blackboard a verse from the Bible. He gave me a book of inspirational readings, chosen from a range of devotional texts, and urged me to read it every day. When we were “in the field” he insisted on saying grace before any picnic meal. He was a deeply religious man who believed in a traditionally conceived Christian God – all powerful, omniscient, and loving. He saw sparrowhawks, like every other element of the natural world, as evidence of God’s creation. His reading of nature somehow managed to take an “All things bright and beautiful” approach. How he squared the nature of hawks with this outlook is something I’ve never understood. To me, a hawk’s perfectly attuned lethality stands shoulder-to-shoulder with parasites, famine, earthquake, war, disease – part of the unassailable army of objections to the kind of deity Jab believed in.

I never voiced such doubts to Jab. It would have pained him to know that what he saw as a magnificent part of God’s design was, in my eyes, a torpedo fired into the certainties he cherished. Of course it’s hard to distinguish between the alphabet the world offers and the letters we add when we try to spell out meanings we can grasp, but however much we were reacting to what was there, or to what we imagined, Jab’s worldview and mine were irreconcilably different in their reading of the evidence. What causes individuals to reach such different verdicts? I’m as unsure about this as I am about what sets the register of our interest in nature. Why should one person be amazed and delighted to see a sparrowhawk and another be left unmoved by the experience? I have no answer; only know I’m pleased to belong to the former tribe.

Our sparrowhawk theologies may have led us to profoundly different conclusions, yet Jab and I shared a lot of common ground and I’m grateful for what flourished on it under the tutelage of his friendship. Of course at the time, many people dismissed our interest as eccentric, even childish. I was excused because of my age, but for a grown man like Jab to be climbing trees to reach birds’ nests – this was something frowned on by most adults. We found it hard to counter such negative assessments. It was difficult to convey how much sparrowhawks meant to us. The significance they possessed wasn’t something that could be easily explained to others; we had trouble understanding it ourselves. How can you articulate, without sounding absurd, the fact of being awestruck by a bird?

In the years since then, I’ve discovered a small selection of titles imbued with the poetry of birds of prey – books whose lyricism touches the nerve of what drew me and Jab to sparrowhawks. The focus in this literature is often on other raptors. But even where sparrowhawks aren’t included, or are only given passing mention, these beautiful prose litanies probe deep into the territory of engagement with birds that have become totemic; they hymn and map such obsession with more nuance and precision than our rough efforts ever managed, putting into words what it was that moved us. I wish when I’d been “in the field” with Jab I’d read J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, T.H. White’s The Goshawk, Jonathan Maslow’s The Owl Papers, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, and James Macdonald Lockhart’s Raptor. When I did, I felt not unlike a member of a tiny persecuted sect discovering the existence of coreligionists.

At one point in his astonishing paean to the peregrine, J.A. Baker describes being in a wood when suddenly a sparrowhawk appears:

There was a faint panting of wings. A small cloud of dusk flickered across the barred sunlight, like the shadow of something higher. Thirty yards away from me, across the thickness of the wood, it swooped up to perch on the branch of an oak. It was a sparrowhawk. The joy of such a moment can be relished for life, though the colour and memory will slowly fade, like the plumage of a stuffed bird in a glass case.

I can remember every time I’ve seen a sparrowhawk. Dotted through the years there’s a line of craters that they’ve left. These snake unpredictably through my life, still smoldering with what they once contained. And yes, there is joy in these sightings – though it’s far from the only emotion that they spark. And yes the memory, like all memories, fades. But whenever a new sighting occurs it’s as if a shockwave is sent through this cratered contour of remembrance, reawakening the fire that made it. Even sightings from my boyhood are only dormant, not extinct. A hawk kill in my garden today doesn’t just make an immediate impact. Its little tsunami reaches back through the years so that my mind is flooded again with memories of watching hawks with Jab. I don’t know how many more times I’ll see this bird before I die. It’s impossible to predict the when and the where of its presence. I only know that without the fire and water that it brings, I’d feel a chill; a thirst that’s hard to rationalize. If this “shadow of something higher” disappeared there would somehow be an absence at the heart of things.

Sometimes I think of sparrowhawks as a kind of living potassium; rare life-metal that has to be stored in the oil of words to keep it from bursting into flame. Damped down by the vocabulary we use to hold them, they may seem ordinary enough, controllable, something we can classify and handle. Our descriptions give the illusion that we can label and categorize them; treat them as if they’re as safely inert as the other things we talk about. But an encounter with the birds themselves, the live element of their sudden, shocking presence, soon shrugs off even the most artful verbal containment. They are explosively reactive. Whenever I think of them now, the image that first comes into mind isn’t of a feathered body, a hooked beak, wings, or talons, but of something burning with a white-hot intensity. Their incandescence left the worldview I was given as a boy in ashes. I’m still not sure what, if anything, the light of sparrowhawks illuminates beyond its own savagely beautiful lucidity.

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