This is Saykhan the golden eagle in the Tien Shan mountains near Almaty. He was heavy! My nose is red because it's minus 20 degrees. I was in Kazakhstan in January 2008 tutoring 28 Kazakh and Uzbek writers with Tobias Hill for the British Council's New Silk Road project, and on our day off I asked if we could go up into the mountains which tantalised from my hotel window. And there he was. For 200 tenge (80p) we could hold him for a pic. These creatures catch wolves! I tried to write a poem about what this felt like, in my latest book The Treekeeper's Tale, and the closest I got was to describe it as like falling in love, that shock of the other, with all the wonder and fear intermixed. The poem is in two parts:
Two Golden Eagles
Holding Saykhan is unexpected as meeting you
after all those years on my own.
Here in the Tien Shan where it’s minus twenty degrees,
with this sudden weight on my gauntlet,
I peer into tawny eyes, see the wolves he’s killed,
swooping onto their napes to knock them down.
If he draws blood he’ll attack but the glove
protects me from his talons and he bears
those jesses that bind him to me.
If he took off he’d lift me with him –
the way we rise into sheer air above the rolling steppe of our bed,
our wing-feathers icicles
while we glide through snow’s embroidered sheets,
our faces cataracts of light.
This time it’s you holding a female golden eagle
and I’m her, gripping your hand through the gauntlet,
my hood pulled off as if for the hunt.
You’ve propped me on your arm for a photo
where we’ll always be together.
You’ve noted my beak, my two-inch claws,
how piercing my eyesight is,
and how at home I am in this biting cold.
For the moment I trust you, even when
your fingers feel my wings, so that although tethered,
I start flying in my mind.
And when you follow on horseback to claim
my quarry, I let you believe it’s yours.
I wait until you allow me to feed.
Yes, the female golden eagle is larger and is the one used for wolf hunts. This photo is of the poet Dauren Kassenov who attended my workshops in Almaty and here he's at Nauryz, the Kazakh New Year festival in March, with his daughter, holding a female eagle. He had just taken part in the yearly traditional poetry battles with audiences of 25,000. Sounds like the Eisteddfod, which I used to sing in when I was a child, only much harder because these 'battles' are improvised. Two poets go on stage and have to answer each other's improvised poems. The audience decides who wins. Even scarier than holding an eagle!