Falco peregrinus: undisputed virtuoso of sonic diffusion, angel of death.

John Alec Baker’s book The Peregrine is, at one level, a detailed document of the author’s investigations into the behaviour of two pairs of peregrines between autumn and spring along a stretch of coastal Essex. Long considered to be a classic or even a masterpiece of the nature writing genre, the book is certainly worth its reputation, certainly as a work of stylistic excellence. In his introduction to the edition I refer to (NYRB Classics, 15 Feb 2005 ) Robert MacFarlane sums up the author’s style very well:

a style so intense and incantatory that the act of bird-watching becomes one of sacred ritual. (p viii)

In writing this essay as someone who works with sound, my interest in Baker is twofold. I’m interested to a certain extent in the way that Baker’s awareness of sound helps to drive his narrative. More importantly, I cannot avoid referring to Baker’s work by way of introduction to my own story of a sonically charged experience with falco peregrinus, my lifelong favourite creature.

Baker’s world is predominantly one of intense, almost obsessive attention to visual detail, which is understandable given the observational basis of his field work. Furthermore he succeeds very well in representing his engagement with a sombre landscape whose muted tones overshadow every outing. His awareness of sound is not exceptional, in comparison say, with that of Thoreau, Susan Fenimore Cooper or Aldo Leopold. This is not a weakness – Baker has other specific concerns in his work. In drawing the reader’s awareness to matters of sonic interest he simply wishes to add interest to the documentary agenda.

Nonetheless I should mention his very effective similes, for example this one on short-eared owls:-

One bird called; a sharp barking sound, muffled, like a heron calling in its sleep. (p64)

Here one bird sounds the same as another bird, like a circular dictionary definition for the non-twitcher.

I also found the occasional touch of exquisite attention to detail:-

I heard a dead leaf loosen and drift down to touch the shining surface of the lane with a light, hard sound. (p65)

Light and hard at the same time? How does he remember these details? Does he note them down at the time or do they just come to him afterwards? Perhaps they are even fabrications, made up as he writes in order to enhance the narrative. In his favour I would say that I’ve heard a similar sound myself waiting in a forest whilst recording high winds. Both light and hard at the same time.

As you’d expect we have flurries of onomatopoeia:-

…a sharp hissing and thrumming of wings… (p65)

Sparrows shrilling in tall elm hedges near the river. (p74)

along with rhetorical devices such as this where he evokes the presence of absence, the ominous presence of silence:-

The flat land was a booming void where nothing lived. (p67)

Overall I found the book to be a dour read with its spirit of relentless obstinacy around the whole enterprise which to me, as an environmental field recordist, was too close to home. Yet the darkness of the seasons, the cold and wet weather, the days spent slogging it out in order to cover the falcon’s extensive domain have contributed to the enduring appeal of Baker’s work. A morbid love of disgusting British weather is a perennial feature of homegrown nature writing.

My meeting with falco peregrinus was a less punishing affair. The Highland setting was to my mind more typical of an encounter with, I am told, the fastest creature on the planet.

Lochnagar in the Cairngorms of North East Scotland is an excellent walking and climbing mountain, especially in winter when snow and ice conditions become alpine and occasionally arctic, though less so recently with the milder winters. The summit Cac Carn Beag is only 3789 feet above sea level. The pressure of too many visitors nowadays means that every winter more and more climbers fall off the cliff, a unique way to spend a holiday. Added to that inconvenience is the slow but sure erosion of the paths and gullies. For my part, as a teenager with the mountains close by I was fortunate to have this wilderness as a personal playground for long months every year.

The mountain’s corrie (cirque, cwm – there’s not really an English word for it) is like a deep funnel of rock with a heather and boulder-strewn base. Three sides of rock buttress, gully and wall enclose the climber. The fourth is the very narrow hidden entrance to the corrie, where two folds of ridges rise and overlap, deepening the impression of being closed in. Dramatic, serious, it is a place where even insensitive humans will become alerted to signs in the environment, especially of a sonic nature.

On some summer days when the wind drops, the skies clear to light blue and you can climb on the warm granite with a single layer of clothing. On one such day I found myself ‘gardening’ a rock climbing route along with fellow obsessive compulsive Doogie Dinwoodie, a legendary climber of his generation. Gardening means that you climb a route in summer, taking as much time as you need to check out every feature: handhold, ledge, crack and slab. As you go you clean up the route using all sorts of brushes and scrapers, removing as much vegetation from the line as possible. Then, having mapped a template of the route into your mind/body complex by means of feeling, caressing and penetrating your way over and into every inch of it, you return in winter and grab a first ascent, thereby promoting your alpha male attributes throughout the group.

The route, appropriately named Nymph, was (and still is unless it’s become hopelessly eroded) a highly enjoyable and fairly straightforward steep ascent with good exposure and a perfect panoramic view of the corrie. For much of the time gardening involves long periods of inactivity as you wait for your mate to clean up his pitch – climbing is a secondary concern. Thus, high on the upper reaches of the face, a good few hundred feet above the corrie floor, I balanced on a ledge belaying my climbing partner above, lazily teasing out rope every few minutes, enjoying the smell and touch of warm rock, listening to the breeze, looking for new unclimbed lines, scanning the corrie walls for signs of recent rockfalls.

Looking up I saw that Dinwoodie had stopped gardening to pay attention to a commotion in the corrie. I had noticed it some time after it started, having taken it for granted for about quarter of an hour. Baker describes a similar experience as follows:-

A monotonous ‘keerk, keerk, keerk’, sound began, somewhere to the west. It went on for a long time before I recognised it. At first I thought it was the squeak and puff of a mechanical water-pump, but when the sound came nearer I realised that it was a peregrine screeching.(p55)

It was the sound that pulled me in. A peregrine (I’ll opt for the female, larger and more powerful than the tiercel or male), flying two hundred feet or so below me, was letting out its hunting call, more like a war cry than a birdcall, hurling itself round the corrie at unbelievable speed in ever decreasing spirals. At first I thought she was upset because we were closing in on the nest, but it became clear that this hawk wasn’t interested in us in the slightest. It also crossed my mind that perhaps she was under threat from a predator, but what on earth would have the skill and speed to threaten a peregrine up here? Besides, falco peregrinus is a bold one – I saw a fine adult perched on a fence post once as I drove past in the car. I stopped the car, got out and walked to within five feet. She looked at me lazily, turned away and carried on scanning the moor. And of course the peregrine doesn’t have too many predators, outside of psycho redneck farmers who shoot or poison anything that isn’t a sheep or a cow. The only other real threats are patterns of unnatural predation in territory caused by human intrusions into the mountains (crows and seagulls raiding bins and extending their range), erosion, humans eliminating the peregrine’s prey.

Eventually something intuitive kicked in and I pieced it all together as if I had known all along: hawk, raptor, hungry, prey, angel of death. Read the rest of this entry »