Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Chaos at Huelgoat: in Segalen's footsteps, trembling rocks, Virgin's kitchens, diabolical caves and more besides.

Aime à sauter roches et marches; mais caresse les dalles où le pied pose bien à plat.
[Love to leap rocks and steps, but caress the flagstones where the foot lands squarely.]

Victor Segalen, from Conseils au Bon Voyageur  [Advice to the Good Traveller - translation by Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush], from  Stèles

There is certainly something of Segalen's exoticism, a whimsical Chinoiserie about the Chaos at Huelgoat, it confounds perspective and scale rather like a Chinese scroll painting or scene on a porcelain plate, or one of those carvings in jade or cork where a tiny, vertiginous world is contained in a small, encircled space, a conundrum of interlocking paths and spaces. (He died in these woods, it seems from loss of blood after cutting his ankle out walking, a copy of Hamlet open by his side, and is buried nearby.)

Trees are dwarfed by the rocks they grow from, and trees and rocks are wondrously sculpted. 

('That's a beautiful tree!' exclaimed a mother to her young daughter as she stepped into the majestic bower created by this ancient chestnut.

'Why?' asked the child.)

Nature seems to imitate art, and partly because of the human traffic that passes over and through, often the roots and stumps of the forest floor take on accentuated, readable forms, 

animal ones perhaps,

or shamanic,

this one put me in mind of the Venus of Lespugue, or something later and more fluid.

(I've turned them to black and white and edited a bit, to bring out the shapes).

The most remarkable forms, though, are perhaps to be found in the cave, or rather chamber between rocks, known as le Ménage de la Vierge, loosely and commonly translated as the Virgin's Kitchen.

The hollowed out shapes and holes are supposed to be her pots and pans, I think.

Another celebrated bit of geology is la Roche Tremblante,

A stand alone megalith which is known, as it's name tells us, to tremble.  But not easily.  More precisely, it rocks when rocked.

Or that's the idea.

Another couple caught up with us, and advised on the required place to make the rock rock, and the chap and Tom put their combined shoulders to it, watched by their dog.  The woman and I looked on, and assured them that  yes, the stone really did move (it did, just perceptibly, at the other end), and, menfolk confirmed in their manhood, we all went happily on our way.

We didn't bring Mol with us on this occasion.  I'd taken her for a short walk over some of the rocks the day before when we arrived, but she likes rock scrambling a little too much, gets over-excited and ambitious and a bit tired and anxious, and next day was favouring one front leg when she went out.  So we took her for plenty of shorter strolls on more even ground, which she was happy with, and she soon recovered.  This meant we were able to explore the rugged places without worrying about her, and there were some where she couldn't have gone at all, such as la Grotte du Diable.

I was somewhat tickled by this idea, not least because there's just one transposed letter's difference between Santa's Grotto and Satan's Grotto.  An interesting option in festive retailing, perhaps, but you know you should be very careful what you ask for there, there could be a hell of a price to pay...

To reach it you must descend by this steep metal ladder, and when you enter it's really very dark,   

there is a railing, but you must place your feet by feel alone.

Slowly the eyes do become accustomed to it, lit as it is by entirely natural spotlights from chinks in the rocks above.

and you are aware of water rushing somewhere quite far below.

Que voit-il au fond du trou caverneux? La nuit sous la terre, l'Empire d'ombre.
[What does he see at the bottom of the cavern? Night beneath the earth, the Empire of shadow.]

(Segalen again, from L'Abîme, [The Abyss], from Stèles.) 

I think you could walk for weeks among the woods and rocks and rivers around Huelgoat, we only really scratched the surface in the areas near the town. We'll certainly go back.


Afterword:  I'm afraid my mini-computer died recently without warning or ceremony.  It had had a short life (about  two and a half years, which apparently is about what you should reckon on for such things these days) but a very busy one.  I am in something of a quandary about replacing it which I may write more of, partly in the hopes of getting some advice from you all.  Meanwhile, though it may not much affect my productivity here, which is not exactly frequent anyway and we still have the main computer, my on-line time in general is somewhat curtailed, and it will make a difference to how much I get about to yours, so please do not take my absence amiss, not that you would if you even noticed, I'm still about and hold you in my heart as ever!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An afternoon at Fauconnerie Bretagne

Fauconnerie Bretagne is tucked down a side road just outside Huelgoat, very easy to find.  It's run by Paul and Eleri Johnson, who are Scottish and Welsh respectively, retired from the British police and falconers of many years' standing.  

We were welcomed into their lovely bright house, where what appeared to be a stuffed bird was sitting on the kitchen table, on a set of kitchen scales.  

Inevitably I asked 'Is that a real one?'.
'He is,' said Paul, refraining from rolling his eyes 'touch him and you'll see.'

The bird shifted slightly and stretched a wing.  He turned out to be a male lanner falcon, and was still and quiet because he was hooded.  

Paul said he didn't much care for hoods but wanted to show us all the gear, including the hood, before getting started.  After that the lanner was taken out, had his head uncovered, and was given a meal.

He ate so much his crop grew enormous, as you can see in the picture above.

Then we were shown around, and met the birds Tom would be flying, and some that he wouldn't,

like this saker falcon, whose name, like the lanner's, I have since forgotten.  She seemed quiet and gentle.  Paul said he had imprinted her so that she was rather over-fond of him and would need to be mated... he didn't go into too many details and having looked up the subject on the internet since it's perhaps just as well. Indeed, she kept looking at him rather winsomely,

and turning her head round in circles to look up at him.  Also, he said, he tends not to fly sakers in the autumn as the urge to up and migrate to Africa can be too strong for them to resist.

Then there was this ferruginous hawk who was called Furia, and she was well named, she was apparently as mean as she looks, and not safe for students to fly.  There was also an American great horned owl, who Paul said hated him, and who Eleri normally dealt with, and he was behind too much mesh to get a good picture of. There is a story of such an owl in an aviary in the US which killed an intruder, who had criminal intent, and the Collin's Bird Guide warns that, should one stumble upon an inhabited nest of a Ural owl, a bird of similar size and disposition, at the time when the young are fledging, one should get out of there fast or perhaps suffer a similar fate.

No such worries with these little darlings though:

a pair of barn owls called Rocket and Romeo.  Paul's and Eleri's sons chose those names, Paul said he wouldn't thank them if Romeo got lost, and he had to be wandering the countryside calling him...

They're just mature birds now, but only weigh about 9 oz - the birds are weighed meticulously and their weight logged in metric and imperial.  'Try to find his head,' said Paul 'it's no bigger than a golf ball.'  We ruffled among the silky soft feathers of the head which yielded endlessly like soft cloud, somewhere deep inside there was the tiny skull, but it was quite elusive.

We both had plastic bags with bits of dismembered day-old chick. 'This is the bit I don't like,' said Paul as he chopped up these rations 'I just wish they ate fruit or something...'. Oddly, handling the stuff bothered us little, it was very dead, we hadn't had to do the dismembering, and we wore plastic gloves to handle it, as did Paul, and the wonder of handling the birds quite overrode any distaste about what they ate.

Tom had an owl,

and I had the food on my glove. I tapped the glove and the owl left Tom's fist and flew to mine,

so then I had an owl.  

Tom then got out a piece of food, and tapped it on his glove,

and the owl flew back to him.

And so it goes on till you've used up the food, by which time the owl's getting a bit slow and lazy, and has a kind of glazed look which, as Paul said, is the way we might look after one too many roast potatoes at Christmas.

One of the services they offer is a wedding performance: Paul stands at the back of the church with a barn owl, which is wearing ribbons or lace tied to its feet which match the bride's dress, and to which are tied the couple's rings.  The owl flies the length of the church, alights on the best man/ring bearer's fist who is wearing a white gauntlet, he cuts the ribbon and give the rings to the couple.  Charmed though we were by the idea of this piece of romantic whimsy and theatre, we were also quite amused at the thought that presumably the best man then has to feed the bird with a piece of dismembered mouse or chick. I assume this is done discreetly...

That was the bit I was actively involved with, which was a lovely surprise, as I only went along as a spectator; after that it was Tom's day.  So thanks to Eleri for taking the photos of us.

Next he had some practice with a young trainee male Harris hawk called Jack.

Harris hawks are very popular in falconry, as they are adaptable and sociable, and Jack is one of three of these birds working at the centre.  The males are light and quick enough to catch pigeon and pheasant, the larger females are more suited to things like rabbits.  There was quite a bit of talk about catching rabbits. 

 'Do you like eating rabbit?' I asked.  

Paul smiled. 'Not much,' he replied 'we don't really eat much meat.  If we do catch anything with the birds we tend to feed it back to them.' 

I had the impression that hunting, though they might do it sometimes, was more a means to an end with falconry as they practised it; it was the interaction between themselves and the birds which was exciting; later he spoke about the thrill of flying a peregrine to the lure, the speed and power of it coming to you.

Tom got on quite well with Jack,

there were a few moments like this,

but others like this,

and like this.

Then he moved onto the snowy owl.

Snowy owls are rather well-loved things these days, Harry Potter etc.  This one was really just a youngster, you can see she's still got quite a bit of baby fluff round her head, and is still quite dark.  As they get older they grow whiter and whiter, though the females are always more marked than the males, since they're ground-nesting and need the camouflage.  She looks rather thoughtful and noble in the picture above, but in fact she was daft as a brush, bumbled and flopped about on the ground in rather a clumsy fashion,

and did quite a lot of squawking.  Paul bent down and tickled her on the back of the neck and she wriggled like a puppy.

She posed very sweetly with Tom for the photo, but was just a beginner in her training, 

and when it came to stepping from perch to glove for the food, she frequently fell off in between or hopped straight over and fell off the other side.  She seemed fairly unperturbed though.

Next up was a young eagle owl called Attila.  

She too still had some down about her head, and the ear tufts, which will be long and imposing when she's fully grown, were a little uneven.  Nevertheless, she weighed about two kilos, and was slightly unsettling to be close to, though they are not apparently an aggressive species.  

She moved quickly like all the birds, and kept swivelling her head round when I tried to take her picture. Unknown to us, she had glimpsed Molly, who had just looked up from her nap in the car across the car park, a small movement but enough to catch the owl's eye.

'Don't get your face too near her,' warned Paul.

She got whole dead chicks sometimes.

This time, partly because her weight was uncomfortable on his damaged left shoulder - the smaller birds gave him no trouble - and partly because she was just a bit of a bruiser and a still young and a little unpredictable, Paul set up three perches, and had Tom run from one to another placing the food and calling.  He had to make sure he kept the food hidden and keep an eye on her so she didn't pre-empt him and come after him too soon 'Watch the bird, watch the bird!' Paul kept calling.

She too posed very agreeably with him though.

After tea and biscuits, and while I took Molly for a leg stretch, they prepared for the culmination of the afternoon, a walk with a hawk, free-flying and unaccompanied.

The hawk in question was Gwint, a fifteen-year-old Harris hawk, the oldest bird they have.

A Harris in the wild may live seven years, in captivity they can live to over thirty.  Paul keeps saying he ought to retire Gwint, build her a big aviary and just fly her himself sometimes, but she's just so good.

Before the walk, Tom had to sit with her quietly for ten minutes or so, and allow her to get used to him, then to touch her beak and feet, and if she tolerated that, we could go. She allowed this, and Paul put her in a carrier in their car and we drove off to a woodland track some ten minutes away. 

Buzzards called from high up and far away.  Paul said they knew she was there already, but no buzzard would mess with a Harris hawk, they would simply fly over then keep their distance.  He cast her up into the trees, gave Tom the food and had him call Gwint down.  First off, she snatched the food before he could secure her jesses (the leather straps on her feet) and swept off with it to a nearby fence post.  

After a couple more takes, off we went.  Paul stayed by the car, we were on our own with her - though we had a walkie-talkie in case of emergencies.

For the first time ever, he said, she followed us a little way then turned and flew back towards Paul and the car. But then Tom showed her food and called her, and she accepted that he was the one to follow.

She flew behind and ahead of us,

sometimes landing in the trees,

sometimes on telegraph poles,

sometimes, especially after a few feeds, she landed on the ground, but she didn't stay there long.

And once she cheated a bit and ran along the top of the gate instead of flying.

She was quick and silent; the shape and colour and movement of her gliding and stalking and sweeping past and over us was an unforgettable sensation,

as were the moments when she rejoined him and came to his hand, Tom said.  

When we returned to the car, she had her remaining food, which Tom threw into the air at Paul's shout as he cast the hawk up; she swooped, looped the loop and caught it faultlessly every time.  

I can't speak highly enough of the whole experience of an afternoon at Fauconnerie Bretagne.  We were booked for three hours, we had more like five hours of solid, fascinating learning and activity, because once Paul gets to sharing the birds and the sport he loves, really loves, he can't stop. We completely forgot to be tired or hungry - there were plenty of biscuits at tea time but we were so excited and interested we didn't think to eat many of them!  It's the most wonder-filled, absorbing, magical thing to do, and an real privilege.  And Eleri and Paul, and their three beautiful, sturdy, smiling sons, who came home from school later in the afternoon, are among the most amazing, generous, glowing people we've had the good fortune to meet, and spending time with them is a joy in itself. I would urge anyone to give it a try; we considered it very good value, and the unaccompanied walk with the hawk is a unique opportunity that few other centres would offer. The website is in French, but it's easy to get the gist and they'll do courses in French or English and supply all the information you'll need by e-mail. They hope to set up a visitors' centre and open to the general public next year, which would be marvellous, but the one-to-on courses will still be unbeatable. 

And as for Tom,

I think he's in love.


Fauconnerie Bretagne,
Paul and Eleri Johnson
Pont ar Goyet
29690 Berrien

Tel.  0033 (0)2 98 99 79 44
E-mail -