The best of me

Opinion - Books Wednesday, 03 October 2018

Ben Crane, author of the memoir Blood Ties, on art, hawks and Asperger's


My Asperger's means I experience the world erratically. My mind is dysfunctional, hyper-sensitive, anxious and confused when in contact with a large proportion of the human world. Applied to the correct activity, it becomes a powerful tool. Left to my own devices, I fall into intense, self-made routines. I become obsessed.

I have been a visual artist far longer than I have been a writer. I find the intense levels of focus and repetition required to write and paint easy to achieve. The levels of concentration and determination touch a profound place where my confusion and fear evaporate. The process connects to a vast inner space, a peaceful and powerful place where the fuzz and pop of a busy mind stops. I find them restorative. Good therapy.

Depending on the time of year, I usually wake with the dawn and walk the dogs. I live alone in a little cottage, and head straight out into the fields to think and talk to myself. I have the best ideas in the first three hours. When I return and I am "in the zone" I work solidly all day in one form or another. If I am not writing then I paint, if I am not painting I am filming or taking photographs, if I am not filming then I go back to writing. Circular movement, self-fulfilling creativity.

Initially I work fast on set pieces, notes and fragments of thoughts or ideas. I like the fluid sensation of these first words, their intonation and flow. Long before they are shredded by the rules of punctuation and edits, they are free to form a stream of consciousness - one long sentence that makes sense only to me. This is the stage where the adrenaline joy lasts longest, the moment where something comes from nothing, where memory and sensation form, and where strange, uncertain words slot together without thought.

Editing is the hardest part, requiring deep concentration. I can spend a week on a single line or paragraph, unravelling all the permutations. When the writing slows to a trickle, rather than stasis, I begin to skip around, tweaking and touching the order of words, shifting sentences and paragraphs to see if I can make them shine brighter. When I hit a proper wall, I swap one cycle for another. I walk the same route and think. My day disappears - write, walk, think - write, walk, think - write, walk, think. When it clicks, when I have cut 40 words to 20 then 10, retained clarity, achieved simplicity and still retained meaning, I dance around the room with joy.

Over and above the soft mechanics of how my creativity operates, the greatest influence on my work are my reactions to nature and birds of prey. I engage and experience both in a similarly focused way. I have a deep affinity with them: they reciprocate my existence on a level I comprehend. I am utterly in thrall to the freedoms and multiplicity of the natural world. The colourful noise, the giddy rush of detail, the delicate points of pattern in the forms of animals, plants, elements, tastes and textures make perfect sense.

All that scuttles and swims, sucks, prowls, bounces, or blows, everything that hatches, pushes, pulses, flies, fans or breathes, is of equal 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. I see the natural world as the embodiment and perfect playground for difference, a force celebrated simply by and for itself, a place without boundaries or fear.

When hunting with my goshawk I find it easy to tune into external movement. I notice and remember things of interest with an alarming level of clarity. Quiet clouds moving, a change in the spread of light over a landscape, a shoal of fish, a leaf falling to the floor, a wiggle of a tadpole's tail, mayflies hatching. I can stare at a stream, mesmerised for long periods of time, hypnotised with an almost synaesthetic sensation.

I find sparrowhawks and goshawks to be very pure creatures, highly nervous, intelligent and initially fearful. They live in the moment, following rigid instinctual drives, possess few subtle grey areas, and act or react on an inbuilt hardwired nature. If handled inconsistently and without care, they revert to a wild state, quickly. A good relationship between a hawk and a human has definite, intimate parameters - parameters absolutely set by the hawk and not the human.

Hawks do not waver, cannot be bullied, coerced or negotiated with. They possess their own internal logic, and have very specific requirements. To succeed in building a strong relationship, all ego must be subjugated in favour of the hawk's needs. When training, you have to think through them in order to create a workable bond. You have to surrender and enter their world, understand it through their eyes. Anything less and you will fail.

The same is true when experiencing or creating a work of art. Engaging with nature through the prism of paint, words, falconry, film or photography are all one and the same – they interconnect and function on the same level – art, nature and falconry, the three fixed points that define my existence. They are the best of who I am.

Blood Ties: A Memoir of Hawks and Fatherhood by Ben Crane is out tomorrow, 4 October (Head of Zeus, £20).

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