”A peregrine soared above the valley in the morning sunshine and the warm south breeze. I could not see it, but its motion through the sky was reflected on the ground beneath in the restless rising of the plover, in the white swirl of gulls, in the clattering grey clouds of wood pigeons, in hundreds of bright birds’ eyes looking upward.” – J.A. Baker, The Peregrine
On my birthday we went to see Seasons, a documentary film by the crew - Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats and Jacques Perrin - that made my favorite nature film, Winged Migration. As in the latter film, Seasons is full of hard to credit film – passages in animal life that seem impossibly out of reach of human perception, and yet, of course, must be commonplace among the beastly individuals themselves – from a owl waking up to catch a mouse to the last evening of a boar, separated from its fellows and chased down by wolves. It is the intimacy that is astonishing, and makes one think that surely this was somehow set up. The film has a rather unfortunate narrative structure that adheres loosely to the history of the holocene in Europe. It was filmed in various spots all over Europe, including the ever mysterious Białowieża Forest of Poland (where the last European bison roam – and where, in a typically Nazicrazy vision, Herman Goering imagined reintroducing the Auroch from the Paleolithic). For the first hour, it is just animal life in the forest, but then a platitudinous speaker intones a little history, that involves man versus nature and animals “taking refuge” in the mountains, as though they were recent casualties from the Euro and USA incited wars in the Middle East.
It is true, of course, that the wolf was hunted to near extinction in most of Europe, deliberately. On the other hand, the wolf had a good run. Far from taking refuge in the Alps, as recently as 1447 the great bobtailed Courtaud with 12 other wolves appeared outside the city of Paris ready to party on sweet Parisian flesh. He was so fierce that it took a while to figure out how to put him and his buddies down. They lived in caves in an area called Le Louvrier, and guess what famous musee occupies that spot now? In 1450 they killed 50 Parisians - and then finally they were lured to the square in front of Notre Dame, the place was blocked off, and they were slaughtered.
In fact, for those paying attention, one of the odd things about life in the US and North America is the return of the predators – wolves, coyotes, mountain lions on the island of Vancouver, bears wandering through the suburbs of Denver. On the East coast much of the former forest land that was cut down and farmed in the 18th and 19th centuries is gone to forest again. Along with the reforestation comes the predators – much debate rages over whether the timber wolf has migrated back into its old haunts in the Northeast US.
But what impressed me about seasons was not the pitfalls of the story told by the narrator, but – as in winged migration – the sense of being intimate and equal to the animals it shows. That equality is a difficult quality to recover. Certainly the cave painters had it – if anything, they would have laughed to hear that humans are superior to the beasts. They painted relatively few human things, and many beast things, because beasts so evidently dominated the world. They still do, of course – insects will be here long after the human blip in geological history has shot its blipwad – but we have come to think of ourselves as the lords and masters.
The quote I’ve put at the beginning of this things is by the man generally agreed to be the best writer about birds, and maybe animals, ever – the reclusive J.A. Baker. Baker lived in an area of Essex that was, in the fifties and sixties, a little off the track. It comes as a bit of a shock that he worked for an automobile association. His area of the world was very small, but he kept it very well scanned, much like the peregrines he recorded in his book. Baker evidently shucked off the feeling that is instilled in us by every principle of our social being – that we are divided from and superior to the rest of ‘nature’. Gillian Darley, in a LRB piece, calls this “nihilism’ – which is what it must appear to us to be. Once tamper with the inequality of man to ‘nature’, and you plunge the human beasty back into the components out of which he thinks he has arisen. I – and I imagine you – will never be so nihilistic as to think I am merely the equal of a mosquito or the squirrel that sometimes flights across our porch here in Santa Monica. But although I cannot feel this equality, I rather believe it – it is the logical result of Darwinian theory. Usually this statement is made with an aha purpose – for, unlike the squirrel, I belong to a species that has constructed Darwinian theory! Whereas if the squirrel were to reply, no doubt it would point to my comic inability to scramble up the trunk of a mimosa tree in about three seconds. And even in this imaginary dialogue, I am putting myself in the place of the squirrel, whose consciousness and standards are utterly separate from mine. We use intelligence as though it was proper to one species, and we are surrounded by beasts who are dumb humans. This of course can’t be right. It is an evolutionary crock. But we accept it.
Baker writes, however, as if he didn’t. In my quote, one notices that not only is he aware of the peregrine falcon, but he is aware that his pair of eyes are not the only one’s in the field: there are “hundreds of bright birds’ eyes looking upward.” When he compares the way a peregrine falcon flies in the wind to the way an otter swims in the floods of a river, his comparison not only makes us think of the air as something liquid, but it puts the peregrine and the otter together in a world. The likeness, the metaphor, is –as is always the case – a way of worldmaking. In this way, The Peregrine is not just a book about birdwatching, but rather, it is a book about the meaning of the peregrine falcon – its significance in the small, connected world of the Chelmsford countryside.
Like all nature writing, its exaltations ride on the back of despair. The nature of Essex was being changed brutally by the industrialization of agriculture that Marx had predicted a hundred years before. The aggregate dump of chemicals was such as to change literally everything. If you loved peregrines, you had to be aware – as Rachel Carson made us aware – that pesticides were killing them through the reproductive route. Thinner eggshells, dead peregrine nestlings. Of course, the chemical debauch of seventy years ago has continued to this day, and is now thinning our own eggshell, that climate in which we evolved and against the change of which we have developed no defense whatsoever. More Mars-like weather, dead human nestlings.
And with that, I’m ending this. Today we fly to Paris. Happy Trumpian lets shit on the planet holiday, you all!