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  • Sean Nixon

Mothering Birds

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Sean Nixon

Sean Nixon is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. For thirty years he has researched the links between consumer markets, cultural representation and social change. His latest book is Passions for Birds: Science, Sentiment, and Sport (McGill-Queen's, 2022).


Fig. 1 Konrad Lorenz and Martina, 1935 (Lorenz Family Property)

 

In her essay, ‘The Body We Care for’, Vinciane Despret reflected on the research of the ethologist Konrad Lorenz. She noted, as others have done, how Lorenz established intense relationships of care and trust with many of the birds that he worked with as a precondition for his studies of animal behaviour.[1] Two of Lorenz’s most celebrated companion animals were Martina the greylag goose and Tschock the jackdaw. Martina was reared by Lorenz as part of his studies into the way imprinting worked to shape the development of certain species of birds. Lorenz and Martina formed an intense bond. She followed him around, slept in his bedroom and treated him as both her parent and companion. He called her his ‘goose child’ and saw himself playing the role of ‘mother goose’ to her.[2] Lorenz’s emotional connection with Martina was such that he returned again and again in his writings to his ‘dear goose’ child.


Lorenz established a similarly intense relationship with the female jackdaw Tschock. Lorenz, as he put it, ‘fell in love with the bird with the silvery eyes’, and the affection appeared to be reciprocated with Tschock treating Lorenz as her companion, feeding him and trying to get Lorenz to fly.[3] In both cases, Lorenz opened himself up to the worlds of his birds - ‘being with’ them as Despret puts it.[4] We might extend Despret’s formulation and suggest that, through practices of care and love, Lorenz immersed himself in the lives of his birds, changing him and them in the process. It amounted to a way of enlarging the ways of being human (and ways of being avian).


Lorenz’s domestication of his research animals, however, was not without its more troubling side. As Thom Van Dooren has argued, whilst Lorenz may have been loving and caring to his birds and sensitive to their needs, there was a coercive dimension to his studies. By deliberately imprinting the birds on him he denied them the possibility of developing into fully flourishing members of their own species. It was, as Van Dooren suggests, a form of ‘violent care’.[5] Lorenz, as Tania Munz notes, conceded as much when he acknowledged that Martina’s domestication and relationship with him had caused her significant stress and disrupted her development.[6]

This form of ‘violent care’ was not unique to Lorenz. In what follows, I want to explore the author T.H. White’s relationship with a young goshawk and the way it illuminates the process of enlarging ways of being human through ‘being with’ birds and their associated forms of violent care. Like Lorenz’s relationships with his captive-reared birds, White’s relationship with his goshawk was played out within a specific geography. This was a rural, but domestic setting. White’s home, its garden and outbuildings formed the centre of his spatial relations with the bird, even as he moved beyond its perimeter at times to fly his hawk in nearby woodland. White, in this sense, shared with Lorenz a deeply domestic relationship with his avian companion(s). It set both men apart from the emphasis upon encounters with wild birds, including hawks and falcons, within uncultivated landscapes central to sporting and conservationist endeavour during the inter-war and immediate post-war decades.


White’s Tale and the Story of Gos


T.H. White (1906-1964), gained an international reputation for his retelling of the Arthurian legend in The Sword in the Stone (1938) and the associated series The Once and Future King (1958). He taught English at Stowe public school between 1932 and 1936 and began to write during his time there. Out of this came his first success as a writer, the book England Have My Bones (1936). The book evidenced White’s compulsion to learn new skills, including how to fly and drive fast cars. Asked in later life to say something about himself, he saw this desire to learn things a way of “compensating for my sense of inferiority, my sense of danger, my sense of disaster”. In the same talk he had quoted Merlyn from The Sword in the Stone, where the wizard had proposed that “the best thing for being sad is to learn something”. As White’s biographer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, noted, so much obsessive learning from White “presupposed a good deal of sadness”.[7] Behind Warner Townsend’s observation lay White’s troubled childhood and his lifelong struggles with his homosexuality and his own sadistic fantasies. White turned to psychoanalysis to help him with his inner demons. Therapy sessions often left him elated. “I am so happy that I hop about like a wagtail in the streets”, he confessed in 1935. “P.A. (psychoanalysis) is the greatest thing in the world”.[8]

One activity that fitted White’s obsession with learning new skills and which spoke to his inner turmoil was the training of hawks. Spurred on by a passage in a book on falconry White gave up his teaching job and rented a labourer’s cottage on the edge of the Stowe estate, writing to the celebrated German falconer Renz Waller for a young goshawk to train. White’s account of his life in the cottage and the traumatic story of the ultimately failed attempt to train the bird he called ‘Gos’ was written up from his daily records of the training of the bird. It became The Goshawk, published in 1951.


Fig. 2 The original cover of The Goshawk.


The Goshawk is written in a diary format, mixing the events of days or groups of days with wider reflections on falconry, the modern world and White’s own emotional states. The book is a painful read, as White battles to train his hawk, withstanding weeks of sleeplessness, physical discomfort and small successes mixed with failures in the training of the bird. Nonetheless The Goshawk is rich in its reflections on White’s relationship with Gos.


The book documents the great patience, love and care for the bird essential to the ‘manning’ or training process. This emerges most clearly in White’s account of the early stages of training ‘Gos’. A recurring problem for White was that the bird would regularly struggle whilst being held on his gloved fist, moving from a state of apparent contentment to one, as he put it, of “rage and terror”. This resulted in the bird ‘bating’. As White described it,


“the leashed hawk leaps from the fist in a wild bid for freedom, and hangs upside down by his jesses […] like a chicken being decapitated, revolving, struggling, in danger of damaging his primaries”.[9]


The falconer had to respond with quiet care and love to the bird in its distress, lifting it back onto the fist with “gentleness and patience, only to have it bate again, once, twice, 20, 50 times, all night”.[10]


White saw the training process as a battle with ‘Gos’ and reflected on the shifting relations between the falconer and the bird in the power play of training. As the days of what White called “attack and counterattack” unfolded, he wondered whether he was the ‘master’ or whether it was ‘Gos’ that was in charge. White pityingly compared himself to a butler, waiting on his master and adopting the butler’s “distant gaze”.[11] He conceded that he had been subjugated to the bird’s “brutality”. This was a bird, as White noted, in whose “talons there was death [and which] could slay a rabbit in its grip by merely crushing its skull”.[12]


Part of the complex dynamics of their relationship was Gos’s shifting dispositions. The powerful bird could switch from being a fierce predator one moment to being a comic child the next, “funny and silly little Gos”.[13] Sometimes, these shifts in the positions occupied by ‘Gos’ were abrupt. The bird could go from being “a homicidal maniac” to placidly enjoying being stroked. In this switch of mood, White noted, “we were in love again”.[14]


White would often see ‘Gos’, as Helen Macdonald has argued, as an unruly public schoolboy in need of education, one that had to be ‘broken’ from its ‘ungovernable state’ into one that had been successfully trained.[15] White was also prompted to see himself as the bird’s mother as much as its teacher. The effort and worry occasioned by the training of the hawk over weeks was like “a mother nourishing a child inside her”. It formed, like the relationship between mother and child, a permanent bond with the bird. Man and bird became, for White, “linked by a mind’s cord”.[16]


White’s sense of himself as occupying this maternal role was reinforced in The Goshawk by the domestic routines that filled White’s life during the training of ‘Gos’. He painted the house, made bookshelves and a table, scrubbed floors, cleaned grates and shot rabbits and pigeons for ‘Gos’. But for all his love and devotion towards the bird, White’s attempt at training failed. Whilst flying ‘Gos’ on a creance the bird broke free and flew away. White searched frantically for it, briefly seeing it again before it disappeared for good. A dark image overcame him. He pictured ‘Gos’ hanging dead, its jesses caught in the branches of a tree, its feathers matted and its body putrefying.


The heart-broken White sort consolation in his garden and surrounded himself with other wild animals that needed to be cared for. Extending his mothering role, he confessed that these were all animals that had to be fed, like the young badgers that he gave warm milk to out of an old Champagne bottle.


 

In his story of ‘Gos’, T.H. White presented a close and intense relationship with a wild bird and its subsequent training, one which offered him, the falconer, the possibility of playing the role of master, carer, lover, teacher, mother, companion and servant of the bird. Amongst these positions, it was the maternal role which seemed especially strong for White. Like Lorenz and other ‘maternalists’ within inter-war and post-war psychoanalysis, social policy and anthropology in Britain, White tended to see emotions like love and tenderness and qualities like care and maturity as maternal.[17] For White, and for others, intense, physically close, and nurturing relations were imagined to be the prerogative of mothers and not fathers. It drew White (and Lorenz) onto the terrain of the maternal as an imagined and even fantasized space, as Shaul Bar Hain puts it in relation to his ‘maternalists’, and to see themselves as occupying the maternal role.[18]


But there was more at work in White dyadic relationship with ‘Gos’. The bird’s latent power and capacity for violence heightened White’s own emotional states. He took pleasure in its killing and wished himself to become a wild and feral thing like ‘Gos’. In doing so, White was seeking escape from the traumas of the world and his own demons. The companionship with ‘Gos’ enlarged his experience, allowing him to express himself in new ways and opening him up to elements of the lifeworld of bird.


If we pan out from White’s life it is possible to see The Goshawk as offering insights into the wider culture of falconry in twentieth century Britain. The routines of care, love and the shifting roles of master and servant undoubtedly speak to how other falconers experienced the sport of falconry. Many were men from elite social backgrounds like T.H. White. They seem to have been drawn to the sport because it also allowed them to project onto the birds qualities they felt were missing from or under threat in contemporary life. The antiquity of the sport, its romantic medievalism and its association with wild, non-urban and sometimes ‘ancient’ landscapes fed their antediluvian impulses. This was a sport, as an editorial in The Falconer conceded in the 1950s, for anti-modern individualists.[19]

It was in relation to the capture, containment and control of the birds that elements of coercion and violence entered these human/avian relations within falconry. By the 1970s critics from within bird conservation were highlighting the discomfort they felt about the breaking of a bird’s natural modes of life within the sport. Other critics were more direct. One wrote to T.H. White after having read The Goshawk. He berated White for the way he had treated a bird White claimed to love. As White’s critic suggested, “how can you talk of love for a bird after subjecting our wonderful predatory birds to such torture […] Is there not enough cruelty in the world without adding to it for one’s amusement or hobby”. As I have noted, Van Dooren has given this argument a more contemporary gloss when he argued that even when great care and sensitivity is taken in rearing birds, for the individual animal there is also a limiting of their possibility of a fully flourishing life and the entanglement of care with violence. If, for men like White, they often saw their relations with birds as maternal relations of care, White’s narrative in The Goshawk acknowledged the violence integral to his relationship with ‘Gos’, as well as the electrifying effect on him of the birds’ own visceral power.


References


[1] Vinciane Despret ‘The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis’, in Body & Society, Volume 10 (2-3), 2004, pp. 129-131. [2] Tania Munz ‘“My Goose Child Martina”: The Multiple Uses of Geese in the Writings of Konrad Lorenz’, in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Volume 41, No. 4 (Fall 2011), p. 416. [3] Konrad Lorenz King Solomon’s Ring, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1952, p. 129. [4] Despret ‘The Body We Care For’, p. 131. [5] Thom van Dooren Flight Ways, Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014, p. 116. [6] Munz, ‘“My Goose Child Martina”’, p. 440. [7] Sylvia Townsend Warner, T.H. White: A Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 24. [8] Ibid, p. 83. [9] T. H. White The Goshawk, London: Penguin, 1951, p.15. [10] Ibid, p.15. [11] Ibid, p 56. [12] Ibid, p. 134. [13] Ibid, pp. 74-5. [14] Ibid, pp. 75-6. [15] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk, London: Jonathan Cape, 2014, p. 76. [16] White, The Goshawk, pp. 37-8, p. 118.

[17] Shaul Bar-Haim The Maternalists, Motherhood and the British Welfare State, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021, p. 7.

[18] Ibid, p. 7.

[19] Editorial, The Falconer, 5 (3), December 1969, p. 128.

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