Easy Chair — From the July 2015 issue

Dressed to Kill

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For my birthday last year, my wife bought me three hours with Chris Davis, a master falconer and breeder of hawks. My time would be spent meeting the hawks that Davis flies and following them into the scrubby woods and deadfalls behind the buildings of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I went with another man who’d gotten the trip as a birthday present from his wife.

Davis has been a master falconer since 1979, but, technically speaking — the language of hawking and falconry is extensive and ancient, like the language of heraldry — on the day of my visit he was an austringer, a handler of hawks. Davis raises Harris’s hawks, a species native to the American Southwest. “Harris’s are the only hawks that hunt in packs, like wolves,” he told us, “and for the same reason: their usual prey in their native environment — jackrabbits — are larger than they are.” The birds looked plenty big when Davis took two of them from his van, holding them on his heavy glove by the jesses — straps attached to the hawks’ anklets. They had a look of malevolent intensity, like movie villains, but they were so schooled in the rules of their world that we two beginners could hold up a glove topped with a piece of raw beef and the hawk would fly to us, settle, and eat. The grip of their big feet was remarkable. Indeed, this raptor grip was the thing that had drawn us to them: unlike other birdwatchers, we were there not only to watch hawks but — if we were lucky — to watch them kill something.

We were lucky: after we’d bushwhacked for a while, following the hawks from tree to tree, one chased down a squirrel that she’d roused from the very pine she was perched in. She circled down inches from the trunk, great wings beating, repeatedly missing the racing squirrel until it made a last-ditch leap from some twenty feet up. She caught it on the fly. It was beautiful and elating to witness the chase, the flight, the skill — both of the hawk and of the squirrel. On the ground the hawk mantled, lifting her wings like Dracula’s cloak to hide the prize.

Falcons kill quickly, by biting the neck and breaking the spinal cord of their prey, Davis had explained to us, but Harris’s hawks kill with their feet, stopping the heart by compression. (To us, the quicker death has the appearance of mercy, but it’s obviously a plus for the predator — your dinner can’t wriggle away.) Davis took the squirrel from the hawks and gave them some mice he’d brought along. “They’d be hours eating this squirrel,” he said. He kept it, though, to give them later — or maybe to eat himself. “It’s very sweet meat.”

Some people have told Davis that while they’d love to watch and hold his hawks they really don’t want to see any animals hurt. And yet to watch hawks at work is to enter into the process of death. In her recent memoir, H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald says that she’s loved hawks and falconry from childhood, when they existed for her mostly in books; she learned the lore and the language, the science and the mythology of raptors, and later came to train and fly hawks herself, including a Harris’s. Her book is about acquiring and raising a goshawk, a larger bird that is known for being temperamental. She named her goshawk Mabel. Macdonald made sure the rabbits Mabel caught were dead before the hawk began to eat them; her human sense of the animals’ suffering ended with their deaths, but the association of death with suffering is hard to break, even for the trainer and devotee of a large and efficient killer.

“What am I going to do with the hawk?” Macdonald wonders at the start of Mabel’s training. “Kill things. Make death.” Hawks, like wolves, like lions, are innocent, but to enable, enjoy, and admire their prowess does bring uneasiness to many present-day humans, an uneasiness of the sort that makes for thought.

We — our kind, humankind — are unique among animals in knowing that we will die. We are also the only animals who know that everything else that lives will die, too. Montaigne notes that the animals we keep (people in his time lived in proximity to more species than we do today) are afraid of being hurt by their human masters and take care to avoid pain. “But that we should kill them, they cannot fear, nor have they the faculty to imagine and conclude such a thing as death.” An animal pursued by a predator is certainly aware of threat, danger, and extremity, and expends all its energies and wits to avoid capture, but it doesn’t know death is imminent even when it’s seized. This knowledge unique to us shapes our relations with nonhuman species as much as it shapes our sense of ourselves.

Countless tales have been told about animals, and the animals in these tales differ from the beings we know in the world and from the hawk in Macdonald’s account. They generally have consciousnesses like our own; in many fictions they talk to one another and sometimes they talk to people. In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), the masterly taxonomy that John Clute co-edited with John Grant, Clute distinguishes among various forms of Animal Fantasy. In the Beast Fable, for instance, animals (such as those in Aesop) enact allegorical or satirical versions of human behavior. Talking Animals can also help or counsel human protagonists. (I suppose Puss in Boots is an example.) But the “pure” Animal Fantasy, he says,

is a tale which features sentient animals who almost certainly talk to one another and to other animal species, though not to humans, and who are described in terms which emphasize both their animal nature and the characteristic nature of the species to which they belong. A pure AF will almost certainly be set in the real world, and will usually teach its readers some natural history. . . . In the pure AF the initiating fantasy premise tends to dissolve into a narrative which heeds the laws of the world. Because they exist in the world and because the communities they depict are subject to the laws of nature, AFs tend to end in tragedy. To tell a pure AF is, ultimately, to depart from fantasy.

In “Tarka the Otter” (1927), a classic story by the British writer Henry Williamson, the otters and foxes and other animals don’t talk, even to their own kind. Unlike Helen Macdonald’s Mabel, Tarka is a fictional character; the story imagines its way into his consciousness and into his particular tragedy: his mate dies, his son is caught and killed, and so, too, in the end, is Tarka himself. Buck, a dog in Jack London’s Call of the Wild, thinks much like a human — in effect, he talks to himself. But though he understands many human words, he doesn’t speak to other dogs or to people, and the animals he consorts with are subject to their natures.

The animal tales for children that Thornton W. Burgess published for decades beginning in 1910 are meant to teach some natural history; his animals behave as real animals do. Reddy Fox chases Peter Rabbit; Buster Bear hibernates; Sammy Jay warns others of danger, often danger coming from Farmer Brown’s boy and his gun, or from the hound, Bowser. Though the animals talk to one another at length and never to humans, they depart from the pure Animal Fantasy in another way. Burgess never explicitly says so, but the illustrations by his friend and collaborator Harrison Cady reveal that the animals who populate the Green Meadow and the Laughing Brook and the Old Pasture are clothed: they wear an array of jackets and vests, straw hats and overalls, spats and watch chains. Some carry rolled umbrellas under their wings, or peer through spectacles.

For all the reliable natural history retailed by the Burgess stories, then, the animals remain fantastic. But Clute points out a curious rule: the animals in Burgess that belong mostly to the human world — the farmhouse chickens, Bowser the hound — are not clothed. Nor are the animals that are killed: Mr. Goshawk wears a muffler, but the dead chicken in his talons is naked (if an animal can be said to be naked). The clothed animals, on the other hand — whose names we know and whose speech we understand — are never killed or eaten. They are often at risk, but Reddy Fox never catches Peter, and Bowser never catches Reddy.

A similar state of affairs can be seen in the stories of Beatrix Potter. Potter did her own illustrations, and in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck we first see Jemima as an ordinary duck in the farmyard. When she goes off to find a place to lay and hatch her eggs by herself, however, she wears “a shawl and a poke bonnet.” She comes upon “an elegantly dressed gentleman reading a newspaper” who has “black prick ears and sandy coloured whiskers” and who nearly succeeds in cooking her. Eventually Kep the dog and two foxhound puppies — all in their skins alone — rescue her from the fox, and once she is back in the farmyard Jemima is again pictured without clothes.

The rule then is that the animals in these fantasies whose lives are described naturalistically can talk, if they talk at all, only to one another and not to people. They can die, and since they resemble us in knowing this fact, their tales can be (though they need not be) tragic. But talking animals in clothes can’t die. This is not because they are incapable of imagining death, as real animals are, but because their hats and shirts and petticoats somehow create for them an Eden in which self-awareness and speech exist but death does not. It’s an odd inversion of the Eden in the Hebrew Bible, a place defined not only by the absence of death but also by the absence of clothes, which enter the world at the same time as death and with something of the same import. It’s when God discovers that Adam is ashamed of being naked that He knows he has eaten the forbidden fruit. Who told thee that thou wast naked?

Before they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve weren’t different from the other animals: they didn’t know they would die. It wasn’t the fact of death that their rebellion brought into the world, but the consciousness of personal death: a Fall — if it was a fall — that so far as we know separates us from the rest of creation, which to that degree we can never rejoin.

Hunters and others have often witnessed animals at the point of being killed suddenly cease to struggle or seek escape, as though they were resigning themselves to death. But this phenomenon may be caused by simple physiological shock; in any case it is different from the ability to “imagine and conclude such a thing as death,” as Montaigne put it. That doesn’t mean that other animals’ lives are necessarily freer than human lives from the pain resulting from death. Helen Macdonald started training her goshawk to anneal the pain of losing her father; she wanted, she says, to be a hawk: “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” But hawks have mates; red-tailed hawks mate for life, and many birds mourn long for a lost mate. The dog who refuses to leave the grave of his master is a commonplace. Chimpanzee mothers have been known to carry a dead infant until it falls to pieces. “I have seen mother elk grieve after the loss of their calves,” Cora Anne Romanow, a University of Winnipeg biologist who studies animal expressivity, wrote to me. “One mom stood right in the spot her calf had been removed from (his dead body had been picked up by the ranch owner) and defended the spot as if her baby was still there.” Mourning is an unresolvable consciousness of absence.

All these hard things we share to varying degrees with the whole of feeling creation, but not the knowledge that death is waiting up ahead. Knowing that we and all those we love must die might actually mitigate human grief; the Stoics thought it did. But it’s a tough sell. If we have to die, what’s the point of living? Is there any meaning in life that death doesn’t obviate? “All this had been so long known to all,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in A Confession, his recounting of a midlife spiritual crisis:

Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. . . . Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. . . . How can man fail to see this? And how go on living?

The Apostle Paul appears to have been one of those people who are profoundly offended by the fact of death, a hatred reflected in the ecstasy of his discovering a new and universal possibility: that though dead we can live, that death will die at last and we will be raised incorruptible. All of us. Not restored to physical life by the intervention of the gods or by a wise physician or by magic, not persisting in a dim afterlife inaccessible to the living except by imagination, but raised up in new bodies from the grave in the very course of things, never to die again. How? It’s a mystery. Placed at the end of a world-story that begins with the fall into knowledge of the innocent couple in the garden, Paul’s revelation offers to believers perhaps the only complete antidote to the catastrophe of learning that you will die: the promise that you will not, not really. What a relief!

I am among those who are not particularly discouraged by the prospect of being dead for good, though I am unsettled by the prospect of dying: of being seized by death unawares, like prey. We can imagine the sudden onset of mortality — heart attack, stroke — far more vividly than we can nonexistence. I am with Wittgenstein in concluding that my death ends the world, though of course at the same time I know that the world in all its particulars will continue without me. Although I can’t resolve that paradox, I have thought that what I’d prefer to being dead is not more active life in an incorruptible Pauline body escaped from the tomb, but merely continued possession of the life behind me, so that it isn’t lost. I know I won’t in fact miss that life when it’s gone, or when I am, but still the loss of it all seems a shame. Were I to imagine instead (as I sometimes do) a world free of the certainty of death, I think I’d choose the one I first entered long ago, where a variety of animals in a variety of clothes converse and learn, where our friends chase and are chased but are never caught. “I like your clothes awfully, old chap,” says the Water Rat to the Mole in The Wind in the Willows. “I’m going to get a black velvet smoking-suit myself some day, as soon as I can afford it.”

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