Wednesday, March 14, 2012

J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

Hawk-hunting sharpens vision. Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the obliqued axe cuts to the heart of the tree. A vivid sense of place grows like another limb. Direction has colour and meaning. South is a bright, blocked place, opaque and stifling; West is a thickening into trees, a drawing together, the great beef side of England, the heavenly haunch; North is open, bleak, a way to nothing. East is a quickening in the sky, a beckoning of light, a storming suddenness of sea. Time is measured by a clock of blood. When one is active, close to the hawk, pursuing, the pulse races, time goes faster; when one is still, waiting, the pulse quietens, time is slow. Always, as one hunts for the hawk, one has an oppressive sense of time contracting inwards like a tightening spring. One hates the movement of the sun, the steady alteration of the light, the increase of hunger, the maddening metronome of the heart-beat. When one says ‘ten o’clock’ or ‘three o’clock,’ this is not the grey and shrunken time of towns; it is the memory of a certain fulmination or declension of light that was unique to that time and that place on that day, a memory as vivid to the hunter as burning magnesium. As soon as the hawk hunter steps from his door he knows the way of the wind, he feels the weight of the air. Far within himself he seems to see the hawk’s day growing steadily towards the light of their first encounter. Time and the weather hold both hawk and watcher between their turning poles. When the hawk is found, the hunter can look lovingly back at all the tedium and misery of searching and waiting that went before. All is transfigured, as though the broken columns of a ruined temple had suddenly resumed their ancient splendour.

*     *     *     *     *

Wherever he goes this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.
*     *     *     *     *

Dry leaves wither and shine, green of the oak is fading, elms are barred with luminous gold.

There was fog, but the south wind blew it away. The sunburnt sky grew hot. Damp air moved over dusty earth. The north was a haze of blue, the south bleached white. Larks sang up into the warmth, or flashed along furrows. Gulls and lapwings drifted from plough to plough.

Autumn peregrines come inland from the estuaries to bathe in the stony shallows of brook or river. Between eleven o’clock and one they rest in dead trees to dry their feathers, preen, and sleep. Perching stiff and erect, they look like gnarled and twisted oak. To find them, one must learn the shapes of all the valley trees, till anything added becomes, at once, a bird. Hawks hide in dead trees. They grow out of them like branches.

 *     *     *     *     *

Two kills by the river: kingfisher and snipe. The snipe lay half submerged in flooded grass, cryptic even in death. The kingfisher shone in mud at the river’s edge, like a brilliant eye. He was tattered with blood, stained with the blood-red colour of his stumpy legs that were stiff and red as sticks of sealing wax, cold in the lapping ripple of the river. He was like a dead star, whose green and turquoise light still glimmers down through the long light-years.

In the afternoon I crossed the field that slopes up from North Wood, and saw feathers blowing in the wind. The body of a woodpigeon lay breast upward on a mass of soft white feathers. The head had been eaten. Flesh had been torn from the neck, breast-bone, ribs, and pelvis, and even from the shoulder-girdles and the carpal joints of the wings. This tiercel eats well. His butchery is beautifully done. The carcass weighed only a few ounces, so nearly a pound of meat had been taken from it. The bones were still dark red, the blood still wet.

I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.

 *     *     *     *     *

I avoid humans, but hiding is difficult now the snow has come. A hare dashed away, with its ears laid back, pitifully large and conspicuous. I use what cover I can. It is like living in a foreign city during an insurrection. There is an endless banging of guns and tramping of feet in the snow. One has an unpleasantly hunted feeling. Or is it so unpleasant. I am as solitary now as the hawk I pursue.

 *     *     *     *     *

A fungus of whiteness grows upon the eye, and spreads along the nerves like pain.

*     *     *     *     *

Woodpigeons and jackdaws went up from North Wood at midday, and cawing crows flew to their tree-top stations. Chaffinches by the bridge scolded steadily for ten minutes, their monotonous ‘pink, pink’ gradually dying away in the sunlit silence. I saw nothing. Assuming the hawk to have soared down wind, I searched for him north of the ford and found him in the dead oak half an hour later. He flew up into the wind and began to circle. His wingbeats became shallower, till only the tips of his wings were faintly fluttering. I thought he would soar, but instead he flew quickly south-east. The lane that divides North Wood dips and rises through a steep-sided gulley, which is sheltered from the wind. The peregrine has learnt that warm air rises from the sunny, windless slopes of the lane, and he often flies there when he wishes to soar.

Slowly he drifted above the orchard skyline and circled down wind, curving upward and round in long steep glides. He passed from the cold white sky of the south, up to the warm blue zenith, ascending the wind-bent thermal with wonderful ease and skill. His long-winged, blunt-headed shape contracted, dwindled, and darkened to the flinty point of a diamond as he circled high and far over; hanging and drifting above; indolent, watchful, supreme. Looking down, the hawk saw the big orchard beneath him shrink into dark twiggy lines and green strips; saw dark woods closing together and reaching out across the hills; saw the green and white fields turning to brown; saw the silver line of the brook, and the coiled river slowly uncoiling; saw the whole valley flattening and widening; saw the horizon staining with distant towns; saw the estuary lifting up its blue and silver mouth, tongued with green islands. And beyond, beyond all, he saw the straight-ruled shine of the sea floating like a rime of mercury on the surface of the brown and white land. The sea, rising as he rose, lifted its blazing storm of light, and thundered freedom to the land-locked hawk.

Idly, indifferently, he saw it all, as he swung and swayed round the glittering gun-sight of his eye’s deep fovea, and watched for a flash or spurt of wings at which to aim his headlong flight. I watched him with longing, as though he were reflecting down to me his brilliant unregarded vision of the land beyond the hill.

He passed across the sun, and I looked away to wring the hot purple from my eyes…

I became aware of my own weight, as though I had been floating upon water and was now beached and dry and clothed and inglorious again. . .

The hawk had gone, and I walked in the fields in haze of contentment, waiting for him to come back. He usually returns to his favourite perching places at intervals during the day. Although I had lost touch with him from the end of December till now, it was obvious that he remembered me and was still comparatively approachable and tame. Song thrushes, blue tits, and great tits, sang; a great spotted woodpecker drummed. Throughout the afternoon, hundreds of migrating gulls circled high to the north-east, drifting and calling.

At three o’clock I had the pricking sensation at the back of the neck that meant I was being looked at from behind. It is a feeling that must have been very intense to primitive man. Without turning round, I glanced over my shoulder to the left. Two hundred yards away, the hawk was perched on the low horizontal branch of an oak. He was facing north and glancing back at me over his left shoulder. For more than a minute we both stayed still, each puzzled and intrigued by the other, sharing the curious bond that comes with identity of position. When I moved towards him, he flew at once, going quickly down through the north orchard. He was hunting, and the hunter trusts no one.

 *     *     *     *     *

By two o’clock I had been to all the peregrines usual perching places, but had not found him. Standing in the fields near the north orchard, I shut my eyes and tried to crystallize my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk. The ground became a branch to my feet, the sun on my eyelids was heavy and warm. Like the hawk, I heard and hated the sound of man, that faceless horror of stony places. I stifled in the same filthy sack of fear. I shared the same hunter’s longing for the wild home none can know, alone with the sight and smell of the quarry, under the indifferent sky. I felt the pull of the north, the mystery and fascination of the migrating gulls. I shared the same strange yearning to be gone. I sank down and slept into the feather-light sleep of the hawk. Then I woke him with my waking.

He flew eagerly up from the orchard and circled above me, looking down, his shining eyes fearless and bland. He came lower, turning his head from side to side, bewildered, curious. He was like a wild hawk fluttering miserably above the cage of a tame one. Suddenly he jerked himself violently away from me. He stalled, wrenched himself violently away from me. He defecated in anguish of fear, and was gone before the white necklace of sun-glittered fæces reached the ground.

*     *     *     *     *

An hour later, from a flurry and cry of curlew, the falcon lifted clear and circled slowly up above the marsh. She glided in a thermal of warm air that bent its white bloom of cloud before the strong north wind. With rigid wings outstretched, she rose in a trance of flight, wafted upon air like a departing god. Watching the falcon receding up into the silence of the sky, I shared the exaltation and serenity of her slow ascension. As she dwindled higher, her circles were widened and stretched out by the wind, till she was only a sharp speck cutting across white cloud, a faint blur on blue sky.

She drifted idly; remote, inimical. She balanced in the wind, two thousand feet above, while the white cloud passed beyond her and went across the estuary to the south. Slowly her wings curved back. She slipped smoothly through the wind, as though she were moving forward on a wire. This mastery of the roaring wind, this majesty and nobly power of flight, made me shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement. Now, I thought, I have seen the best of the peregrine; there will be no need to pursue it farther; I shall never want to search for it again. I was wrong of course. One can never have enough.

Far to the north the falcon tilted downward and slid slowly through sun and shadow towards earth. As her wings swept up and back, she glided faster. And then faster, with her whole body flattened and compressed. Bending over in a splendid arc, she plunged to earth. My head came forward with a jerk as my eyes followed the final vertical smash of her falling. I saw fields flash up behind her; then she was gone beyond elms and hedges and farm buildings. And I was left with nothing but the wind blowing, the sun hidden, my neck and wrists cold and stiff, my eyes raw, and the glory gone.

*     *     *     *     *

Under a blackthorn, beside the brook, I found a freshly killed woodpigeon. Blossom was drifting down into the drying blood. A footpath runs between the two woods, and is separated from them by small thorn-hedged fields and a scattering of oak and elm. There is a dead tree to the south of the path: twenty feet of ruined elm, branchless, jagged at the top like a broken tooth. On this mossy fang the lighter, approached, circled, then drifted down towards me in a series of steep glides and stalls. I stood near the dead tree and watched his descent. The big rounded head, suspended between the rigid wings, grew larger, and the staring eyes appeared, looking boldly through the dark visor of the eye mask. There was no widening of the eyes in fear, no convulsive leap aside; he just came steadily down and glided past me, twenty yards away. His eyes were fixed on my face, and his head turned as he went past, so that he could keep me in view. He was not afraid, nor was he disturbed when I lowered and raised my binoculars or shifted my position. He was either indifferent or mildly curious. I think he regards me now as part hawk, part man; worth flying over to look at from time to time, but never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper.


  1. Jerome Rothenberg, "Conversations" (1968): “I was an animal & was never free...”

  2. Jaime de Angulo, quoted by Bob Callahan: "The Wanderer, man or woman, shuns camps and villages, remains in wild, lonely places, on the tops of mountains, in the bottoms of canyons. Whenever anyone approaches, he runs away, throws sticks and rocks at his friends and relatives. They will spy on him, waiting for his condition to improve. They find him performing antics of behavior, running and jumping, with shouts and songs, and breaking branches, hurling rocks at trees.

    "Wandering is something that may unfortunately befall any man or woman, and it can take many, many forms. It may end up in complete loss of soul, and lingering death. When an Indian becomes convinced that he has lost his shadow he will let himself die out of sheer hopelessness. Or it may result in temporary madness. The Indian never courts pain. It would never enter his head to imagine that by making himself miserable and pitiful in the eyes of the Powers he might gain their sympathy and aid. This is not his conception at all. To him, the mysterious powers, the Tinihowis, (we might call them genii) are whimsical spirits living in the woods and entirely indifferent to the affairs of the Pit River Valley. In order to gain their friendship, in order to approach them without scaring them away it is necessary to become wild oneself, it is necessary to lose one's own humanhood and become as wild as possible, as crazy as possible. Haunt lonely, desolate places. Act like a madman, throw rocks about, yell and dance like a maniac, run away when anybody comes. Climb awful mountains, climb down the rim of crater lakes, jump into the silent cold water, spend all night there. Of course, one suffers cold and hunger in such an experience, but it is only a necessary and inevitable accompaniment of getting wild. When you have become quite wild, then perhaps some of the wild things will come to take a look at you, and one of them perhaps take a fancy to you, not because you are suffering and cold, but simply because he happens to like your looks. When this happens the wandering is over, and the Indian becomes a shaman."

  3. Jaime de Angulo, from "Songs of Myself:"

    in my cage I sing
    for night is arriving
    and from its shadow I see
    the nocturnal bird appear

    Son of nothingness
    born from the darkness that was the ancient world
    what do you want of me?

    falcon, you with the stern face
    it was you whose silhouette I saw
    against the gold of noon

    at evening in my cage
    I sing like a madman

    BERK AUG 31 49