Most nature writing is understandably from the human perspective, how nature affects us, the challenges it presents and what benefits we can obtain from it. The problem with this approach is that we cannot escape the constraints of language, and our stories about literature, religion, poetry, philosophy and drama tend rather to emphasize our separateness from nature, not our place within it. Furthermore, cognitive scientists tell us that our sense of self, through which we mediate our experience, is an illusion and that our mind is riven with cognitive biases that distort our perception of reality. Even our vision is affected: “For all our experience of a rich visual world, it seems that we take in no more than a handful of facts about the world, throw in a few stored images and beliefs, and produce a convincing whole in which it is impossible to tell what was real and what imagined.” In short, we are told that our normal perception of reality is in fact more like the distorted reflections on the wall of Plato’s cave than a true reflection of reality. If correct, then Joseph Conrad’s description of the darkness in every human being is not just fiction but an unfortunate fact of existence. The “horror” is within us.
While alien to most people in the West this view is more familiar to those living in the East, particularly the 350 million practicing Buddhists who believe that we are not integral, autonomous entities and that the concept of the ‘self’ or ego is delusional and something that must be seen through in order to reach Nirvana, a state of spiritual enlightenment. Buddhists claim that meditation is one of the most important ways to do this. J. A. Baker, an unassuming English birdwatcher from Chelmsford in England, found another path and he described the experience in his bird watching diaries which were published as The Peregrine. The book contains some of the most lyrical writing about nature in the history of the genre but it is Baker’s unusual perspective that elevates it into something more than just nature writing. Rather than anthropomorphizing other species Baker attempts to deanthropomorphize himself with the goal of seeing the world through the eyes of the Peregrine Falcon, the world’s fastest-flying bird. In short, The Peregrine is Baker’s attempt to escape the point of view of the human observer:
“… I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in the 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 … 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 the feather-light sleep of the hawk. Then I woke him with my waking.”
Instead of the landscape around Chelmsford he saw a land:
“ as profuse and glorious to me as Africa…Like the seafarer, the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water. We who are anchored and earth-bound cannot envisage this freedom of the eye.”
Baker did not think we could bear a clear vision of the animal world. “We seldom see the bones of pain that hang beyond the green summer day. The woods and fields and gardens are places of endless stabbing, impaling, squashing and mangling.”
Spending so much time in a narrow strip of land, he came to see places as momentary events, not enduring things:
“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 oblique axe cuts to the heart of the tree. A vivid sense of place grows like another limb.”
Of course we can never completely escape the human perspective but sometimes, just sometimes, at the right moment, if the student is ready, a new field of vision will open up. In these brief moments, when a chink appears in the matrix of our minds, we are free.
“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.” J.A. Baker