Brenin and Mabel – writers and raptors, philosophers and wolves

Tapestry of hunting with hawks, Chateau Puivert, France (detail)

Helen Macdonald’s book, H is for Hawk, is the well-deserved winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, as well as being many people’s favourite book of the year. This highly personal memoir has obviously touched a nerve concerning our relationship with the animal world, and though some critics have rushed to compare it with J.A.Baker’s The Peregrine, it has much more in common with Mark Rowlands’ 2008 The Philosopher and the Wolf, another remarkable disquisition on inter-species empathy.

Substitute Brenin the wolf for Mabel the goshawk and it is clear that Helen Macdonald and Mark Rowlands both have form. The two books were published when their writers were approaching 40 and had found themselves looking back on difficult times. In both cases it had been the development of a close and potentially fraught relationship with a wild creature which had allowed them to re-situate themselves in the world on an entirely new footing. In the time-consuming, frustrating and on occasions debilitating ‘training’ process, both trainer and animal were changed irrevocably.

Neither was a novice. Macdonald had years of experience in training hawks as Rowlands had with large dogs. But in taking on, respectively, a goshawk and a pure wolf (which Rowlands was able to do while working as a philosophy lecturer at an American university, securing the dog through not entirely legal means), the two writers immersed themselves in like-minded projects. In both cases, this enabled them to escape problems in the wider world (including, it seems, an ability to sustain long-term personal relationships), and in doing so exert a claim on our kinship with other ‘animals like us’, to cite the title of one of Rowlands’ further studies in animal-human relationships and ethics.

There are important differences. Where Macdonald and Mabel fled to the fields and the woods away from the city, Rowlands took Brenin (human size, human weight, but a timber wolf nonetheless) into his lectures and seminars. He invariably did this after wearing the wolf out beforehand, through long runs, so that it mostly slept at the back of the class, in between occasional bouts of groans and howls. Nevertheless, for nearly ten years man and wolf lived, worked and travelled as one.

The success of Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel the goshawk, over time eventuated in a more confident, more out-going human being, as is clear in the eloquent style of H is for Hawk, though at times Macdonald admits to being close to madness. ‘I was nervous, highly strung, paranoid, prone to fits of terror and rage,’ she writes at one point. ‘I fled from society, hid from everything; found myself drifting into strange states where I wasn’t certain who or what I was. In hunting with Mabel, day after day, I had assumed – in my imagination, of course, but that was all it could ever be – her alien perspective, her inhuman understanding of the world.’ Though her main argument is with herself in exploring this strange relationship, Macdonald also engages with the history of hawking and hunting, reflecting on – and rejecting – the will to power of so much of the literature, including T.H.White’s minor epic, The Goshawk, a close reading of which provides a counterpoint to the main story.

For Rowlands, however – as a result of his decade with Brenin, through thick and thin, and continuing emotional upheavals – the lessons were more drastic. Searching out the literature on animal training, Rowlands is appalled at the cruelty of most animal psychology and experimentation. He becomes a vegetarian as a result, though he is unable to persuade the wolf to do likewise; he further resolves to focus as a philosopher on aspects of animal rights and human flourishing. The writer turns inward, profoundly so, but the philosopher turns outwards toward the world of politics and species dignity.

One hopes that such accounts of close and empathetic relationships between humans and animals might help arrest the continuing decline of species. For wherever one looks in the landscape today, there is less animal life to see, other than a proliferation of cats and dogs. George Monbiot and others have argued for a re-wilding of the landscape, while a generation ago Nan Fairbrother noted in her wonderful book, New Lives, New Landscapes, that ‘the animals are going indoors’, referring to the growth of factory farming. It is to be hoped that between them the extraordinary lives of Brenin and Mabel (and their human familiars) might persuade more people to take the duty of care owed to animals more seriously.