Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Environment, Nature

Read an Excerpt from “Blood Ties: A Story of Falconry and Fatherhood” by Ben Crane

Spring and Summer of 2020 have been unlike any in our collective memory. But as we’ve spent these months in relative isolation, socially distanced from our loved ones, many of us have awakened to details of the changing seasons that we seemed somehow to have forgot in our normal daily lives. We’ve noticed the feel of cool, green moss; the hum of bees in city parks; the smell of blooming lindens. In the news, we’ve read about the return of wild boars, goats, fish, and dolphins to city streets, rivers, and ports. Something in this is comforting.

Copublished with UK publisher Head of Zeus, Ben Crane’s Blood Ties is a potent reminder that if we open our senses to nature, we are never truly alone. It is also so much more. Both an uncannily brilliant evocation of the falconer’s art and a moving story of a man’s discovery of how to be a father, Blood Ties is a memoir as compelling and feathered with insights into the natural world and human heart as the beloved H Is for Hawk—and yet, it is a story wholly its own. At once deeply personal and soaring across the globe, bringing us eye to eye with raptor species from rural England, Pakistan, Croatia, the United States, and more, this is a book about a man’s relationship with hawks, his self-education as a falconer, and his discovery that despite his Asperger’s Syndrome, he can forge a loving bond with the young son he thought he had lost. With lyrical, unsentimental precision, Crane describes his rediscovery of human bonds through his training of hawks and his love of the wild. “I saw that my feelings toward nature, and birds of prey in particular, ran in parallel with my feelings for my son,” Crane writes. “I worked out that they were, in fact, two sides of the same coin—the deep love of one could, with gentle observation, inform and unlock the deep love for the other. . . . Perhaps this then is the central theme of my story.” Read on for an excerpt from Blood Ties.

Our cottage was situated deep within the English countryside. Exposed to nature at an early age, artistic and creative, I lived in my imagination or in the outdoors. I built numerous dens and hideouts, weaving wood and leaf litter, cutting and creating my own world in the process. I made fire, would hunt and trap animals. I taught myself to tickle brook trout, whipping them out of water by hand. Once they had been gutted, I flash-fried them for lunch. In the spring and summer, slowworms, newts, frogs, toads and gallons of tadpoles ended up in buckets. I threw stones at a hornets’ nest, and big brutal insects spilled into the sky in a massed ochre cloud, the buzzing tone dangerous and low. I tied daddy-long-legs into cotton thread, flying them high into the sky, before winding them back to the ground, joyfully repeating the process for hours. An injured mole, cleverly kept and watched in a metal box, was fed worms I dug from the garden. Unable to keep up with her voracious appetite, I eventually released her. I clearly remember her soft silver coat and fat, pink-paddle hands as she swam back beneath the soil. Numerous tennis-ball-sized baby rabbits arrived on the floor and doorstep. Some survived, others succumbing to the stress and mess and the cat’s jaws. On a low winter afternoon, alone among snow-stripped saplings and bare trees, a muntjac deer screamed. In front of me on the floor, an isolated, trident-shaped footprint. A head full of my own fantastic stories and the strange noise of the deer, I knew for certain it was a monster. I panicked and ran. Overly inquisitive and without an active idea of cause and effect, I dipped my hands into the depths of a fallen tree. I removed a palm-sized baby squirrel; it was cold, almost lifeless. To raise its body temperature, I tucked it into the only thing warm enough, my sweaty plimsoll. I ran the half a mile home barefoot, scuffing and blistering my feet. Later I fed her cow’s milk but failed to keep her fragile life from slipping away. From the long grass in our garden, I ‘borrowed’ twenty grey partridge chicks from the nest of their strutting, calling mother. Each was the shape and texture of a bumble bee, and I built them a new home across my duvet, using a hairdryer to keep them warm. Once discovered, they were boxed up and driven to a member of the local shoot, to be raised, released then shot: the oddest parental logic. Smaller birds were a better prospect, some fallen from nests, others brought in by the cats. I raised one by hand; it would perch indoors on the curtains, flying across the front room for worms and hand-held maggots and was a potent shape of things to come.

As an adult, life has not been straightforward.

I fail to maintain close long-term human friendships, or intimate relationships. I dislike crowds and large groups, much preferring my own company for extended periods of time. Visually, I am hypersensitive, amplifying and magnifying all communication and, with no filter, it often takes days to decom press and unravel meaning. When talking to people, I have multiple interpretations of one conversation. I will avoid eye contact, become distracted and agitated easily, my levels of fear and anxiety are often unbearably high; around strangers, I am in a fight-or-flight position for much of the time. Unconsciously, I will overstep the mark, push boundaries and blurt out inappropriate comments. This often makes me seem impulsive and anarchic.

I also develop relentless sets of routines around subjects that interest me. To waver or break in them causes me distress and frustration. I explore these subjects at the expense of everything else, exhausting myself and anyone else close to me.

I’m a natural outsider, unable to relax yet struggling to meaningfully connect, but nature has continued to intercede for me as a place of peace, a welcoming conduit of stabilizing emotion—a place where I feel most able to express and communicate who I am.

I find nature to be infinitely absorbing and visually relaxing. I am utterly in thrall to the in-built freedoms and multiplicity of the natural world. The mesmerizing fractal nodes and colourful noise, the giddy rush of detail, the delicate points of pattern in the forms of animals, plants, elements, tastes and textures, all make perfect sense. Deeply democratic, all that scuttles and swims, sucks, prowls, bounces or blows, everything that hatches, pushes, pulses, flies, fans or breathes is of interest to me. I am in love with the endless creativity that throws up varied forms, billions of ideas that flip and fold, live and die, survive or pass. The natural world is the embodiment and perfect playground of difference, a force celebrated simply by and for itself, a place without boundaries or fear, out of which I have built a self-willed and life-affirming education. Nature remains the most significant, meaningful and consistent relationship of my life. Without it, I feel helplessly lost.

My discovery of birds of prey was a revelation. When I held a hawk for the first time, shocked by an emotion of such startling power and clarity, I felt an internal, audible crack. This was what I had been searching for.

Ben Crane is a writer, artist, and teacher who has been involved in a wide range of country pursuits from an early age. His fascination with falconry has taken him all over the world, and he has traveled across Europe, America, and Pakistan flying birds of prey and writing about trapping, training, and hawking with sparrowhawks, goshawks, falcons, and eagles. He is the author of Sparrowhawks: A Falconer’s Guide.

Blood Ties is available now on our website at your favorite bookseller.