Bird­man How be­ing with hawks made me a bet­ter fa­ther

Un­able to con­nect with his young son, Ben Crane fled the fam­ily home – but his work with fal­cons helped him be­come the fa­ther he wanted to be. In­ter­view by Mike Power

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Por­trait by Fabio De Paola

In the de­liv­ery room, at the end of a gru­elling 90-hour labour, Ben Crane was handed his new­born son – but some­thing was wrong. The only thing Crane felt was a ris­ing sense of dread and panic. As he looked down at his baby, he re­alised he didn’t feel the ec­static love that so many men say they feel when they hold their child for the first time.

“I cut his um­bil­i­cal cord, and I didn’t feel any­thing,” he tells me, six years later. “It was just a blank void. I was hold­ing this bag of in­for­ma­tion that I had cre­ated.”

And things got worse: born with jaun­dice, his son was whipped away by med­i­cal staff. Be­fore long, the ward was swamped with vis­i­tors, Crane on the out­side look­ing in, his son ma­rooned in an incubator. He was fail­ing to con­nect with his child, but couldn’t tell any­one be­cause he was crip­pled by shame. “I just felt a to­tal fail­ure as a hu­man be­ing, and I didn’t know why.”

Two years later, he fled the fam­ily home and tried to start a new life. He even re­mar­ried, but re­mained es­tranged from his boy and as con­fused as ever. When he was made re­dun­dant from his job as an art teacher, end­ing a 12-year ca­reer, he even con­tem­plated sui­cide. He felt he had lost ev­ery­thing.

Crane left his new part­ner and re­turned to the iso­lated Shrop­shire cot­tage where he had lived when his son was born. There, he left ev­ery­thing be­hind, in­clud­ing fal­conry, a craft he had be­come fas­ci­nated with in his 20s and which had seen him travel the world.

Job­less and es­tranged from his son in the Shrop­shire coun­try­side, he lived sim­ply, for­ag­ing for food, claim­ing job­seeker’s al­lowance and watch­ing the sea­sons change. Slowly, Crane re­cov­ered. The soli­tude and space, along with coun­selling, helped him un­der­stand what had gone wrong in his life, and that liv­ing closer to na­ture was the key to his sur­vival.

Per­haps most im­por­tantly, he re­ceived a di­ag­no­sis of Asperger syn­drome in his 40s. Things started to make sense.

Two years passed. Then one day his ex-part­ner – “An in­cred­i­ble woman, who had the emo­tional in­tel­li­gence I lacked at that time” – got in touch to say that their son, now aged five, wanted to know him. Crane had not planned to see him un­til he was 11 or so, think­ing he would be more ready at that age, but the boy’s mother per­suaded him.

“She knew he needed a dad. She said: ‘He’s ask­ing to see you, he’s a re­ally nice kid, Ben. He’s amaz­ing, he’s so beau­ti­ful, and in­tel­li­gent. Come and see him.”

At the same time, he was con­tacted by a fal­coner who had res­cued a pair of spar­rowhawks that needed to be re­ha­bil­i­tated into the wild. Crane set about train­ing the birds, liv­ing with them as he did so – a way of life that was a calm­ing re­sponse to the mod­ern world that seemed to him so un­man­age­able.

Crane found him­self won­der­ing, “How come I can be so con­nected to hawks, an­other species al­to­gether, but I can’t love my son?” He de­cided see­ing his son was the right thing to do. They had kept in touch over the two years they were apart, with Crane send­ing pho­tos and funny car­toons, so they weren’t to­tal strangers. But noth­ing could pre­pare him for the shock of meet­ing his boy again.

When the car pulled in, “I didn’t recog­nise him. I saw him bounc­ing around in the back, he was so ex­cited. I was ner­vous, be­cause I hadn’t seen his mother for years. But she was amaz­ing.”

The boy ran and jumped into his arms with full force, and smoth­ered him in jammy kisses.

“I wasn’t any­thing other than his dad. It was ev­ery­thing I needed,” Crane says. “There was a mo­ment he was run­ning ahead of us, hit­ting net­tles with a stick, with the dogs run­ning be­hind him. We were just like a whole fam­ily, to­gether, just nor­mal. It was a re­lief, be­cause I was ex­pect­ing the worst.”

Still, he was star­tled at the boy’s in­stant, un­con­di­tional at­tach­ment – and un­easy when he called him “Daddy”. But as the day went on, he felt the dawn­ing of the love he hadn’t ex­pe­ri­enced when the boy was born. That night, after they parted, he says he missed his child more than he had ever missed an­other hu­man be­ing.

As the years have passed, Crane has built a close and lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with his son, and of­ten visits him in Lon­don, where he lives with his mother. Crane says he still finds par­ent­ing a chal­lenge – per­haps a greater chal­lenge than win­ning the trust of a wild rap­tor. “I strug­gle with the mag­ni­tude of be­ing a fa­ther and re­act­ing in a way that so­ci­ety deems ap­pro­pri­ate,” he says. “Thank­fully, my son thinks I’m bril­liant. But out­side our lit­tle bub­ble, I know I’m a bit dif­fer­ent. He ac­cepts me for who I am, and I love him for that.”

He says his ex­pe­ri­ence with fal­cons has in­flu­enced his ap­proach to par­ent­ing. “You can’t bully a bird of prey, or force it to be­have. Well, you can, but you end up with a bird that re­sents you. Swap ‘bird’ for ‘son’, or ‘hu­man be­ing’. They teach you a lot.”

Such as?

“There are mo­ments where that hawk is at­tack­ing me, and I’m think­ing, ‘What have I done wrong?’ Be­cause I’ve got a two-pound goshawk at­tached to my head. Who’s teach­ing who, here? Do you know what I mean?”

I think back to my own lit­tle boy’s last tantrum – caused, if I’m hon­est, by my own im­pa­tience – and I do.

“We all get on so well now. There’s this enor­mous pres­sure in the world to be a cer­tain kind of fam­ily, but we’ve got our ver­sion, and it works,” Crane says. He helps his boy es­cape his iPad with fish­ing trips, and the boy has even learned to fly his own hawk. “We just bim­ble along hap­pily to­gether.”

As he has got to know him, Crane sees a lot of him­self in his son. “We came back from a beach trip to Kent a lit­tle while back, and it was so rub­bish – to­tally bleak. There was loads of traf­fic, bad weather, dead birds, lit­ter, crowds. Eight-quid car parks. The worst day pos­si­ble. We tried to have fun, but it was crap, re­ally.

“And as we drove back, he said to me, ‘Well, that was a to­tal dis­ap­point­ment!’ and I laughed, be­cause it was. It’s ex­actly what

I would have said if I hadn’t been play­ing this role, pre­tend­ing ev­ery day has to be fan­tas­tic, when it doesn’t. I thought, ‘Christ, he is my son.’ I thought I was be­ing a shit dad, and him say­ing that, it blind­sided me. I looked and him and thought, ‘I love you so, so much.’ We’re all right. It’s go­ing to be all right.”

As Crane talks, he’s get­ting antsy in his chair, drift­ing away from ques­tions; the noisy, bright Trafal­gar Square cafe where we have met is rat­tling his hy­per­a­cute senses. I can tell he needs to get home and wind down, like a hawk di­gest­ing in peace on its perch after a kill. We head out into the roar of cen­tral Lon­don, pi­geons fuss­ing around foun­tains.

“A lot of fa­thers should ab­solve them­selves of the re­spon­si­bil­ity of think­ing they know stuff, of be­ing dom­i­nant,” he says. “It doesn’t work. My son taught me to be a fa­ther – and he’ll con­tinue do­ing that un­til the day I die.”

Blood Ties, by Ben Crane, is pub­lished by Head of Zeus at £20.

‘You can’t force a hawk to be­have. You end up with a bird that re­sents you. Swap “bird” for “son” and they teach you a lot’

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