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The Peregrine: Escaping the Human Perspective

Peregrine

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

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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24 Comments on “The Peregrine: Escaping the Human Perspective”

  1. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm,

    Great post. You reminded me of a short story by Paul Bowles entitled ‘Allal’ where an outcast Morrocan boy becomes a snake, at least in his mind, or the author’s, and perhaps the reader’s. Pretty haunting.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allal

    And, am I a 70’s Swedish-pop musician who dreamed I was an eagle, or an eagle who dreamed I was a 70’s Swedish-pop musician?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, thank you for this great comment. I loved the link to Allal which I had never come across. Our atavistic nature is a theme that runs through The Peregrine. I also loved the Abba video!

      Reply

  2. sally1137 Says:

    Interesting point of view. I am going to find his book. Thanks!

    Reply

  3. Jeff Nguyen Says:

    Sometimes chasing shadows dancing on the cave walls is easier than stepping out into the daylight. Freedom is mental and psychological as much as physical. A very thought provoking analysis, Malcolm.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “Sometimes chasing shadows dancing on the cave walls is easier than stepping out into the daylight.”

      This is so true and for that reason I believe most people are not interested in freedom whether it is physical or mental.

      Reply

  4. Dr. Michael Edelstein Says:

    After reading your post I thought of Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’:

    Reply

  5. benvenutocellini Says:

    All children’s books are books about nature…wish you could come around here and see what I see…wish you could observe the considerable allure of the olive trees…and of course, I wish I could say more….

    Reply

  6. dalo2013 Says:

    Much of what we see and desire to understand escapes our ability, for as you say we the human perspective pulls us back from wherever we would like to escape. However, through art, be it writing, painting, photography, we can gain just enough time in the prohibited land of “nature” that as you say, “a new field of vision will open up.”

    The beauty of life. Great post Malcolm.

    Reply

  7. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    Malcolm,

    Here are the lyrics to this haunting ballad. One of Dylan’s best.

    Ballad of a Thin Man

    You walk into the room
    With your pencil in your hand
    You see somebody naked
    And you say, “Who is that man?”
    You try so hard
    But you don’t understand
    Just what you’ll say
    When you get home.

    Because something is happening here
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?

    You raise up your head
    And you ask, “Is this where it is?”
    And somebody points to you and says
    “It’s his”
    And you say, “What’s mine?”
    And somebody else says, “Where what is?”
    And you say, “Oh my God
    Am I here all alone?”

    But something is happening here
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?

    You hand in your ticket
    And you go watch the geek
    Who immediately walks up to you
    When he hears you speak
    And says, “How does it feel
    To be such a freak?”
    And you say, “Impossible”
    As he hands you a bone.

    And something is happening here
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?

    You have many contacts
    Among the lumberjacks
    To get you facts
    When someone attacks your imagination
    But nobody has any respect
    Anyway they already expect you
    To all give a check
    To tax-deductible charity organizations.
    You’ve been with the professors
    And they’ve all liked your looks
    With great lawyers you have
    Discussed lepers and crooks
    You’ve been through all of
    F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
    You’re very well read
    It’s well known.

    But something is happening here
    And you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?

    Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
    And then he kneels
    He crosses himself
    And then he clicks his high heels
    And without further notice
    He asks you how it feels
    And he says, “Here is your throat back
    Thanks for the loan”.

    And you know something is happening
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?

    Now you see this one-eyed midget
    Shouting the word “NOW”
    And you say, “For what reason?”
    And he says, “How?”
    And you say, “What does this mean?”
    And he screams back, “You’re a cow
    Give me some milk
    Or else go home”.

    Because something is happening
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?

    Well, you walk into the room
    Like a camel and then you frown
    You put your eyes in your pocket
    And your nose on the ground
    There ought to be a law
    Against you comin’ around
    You should be made
    To wear earphones.

    Cause something is happening
    And you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?

    Reply

  8. becwillmylife Says:

    Great post, Malcolm. I hadn’t really thought about how narrow my view of nature is due to my own cognitive limitations.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Becky, thank you. It is so counter-intuitive because we all want to believe that the world is exactly as we perceive it. On the other hand, in the East they have had plenty of time to get used to the idea that this is not the case.

      Reply

  9. nilanjanalahiri Says:

    woho…. awsum.. work 🙂
    do read my travel experiences too
    http://nilanjanalahiri.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/the-desert-unveiled-rajasthan/

    Reply

  10. Gede Prama Says:

    Thank you friend, there are many inspirational articles
    and thank you for following my web and regards compassion ^_^

    Reply

  11. Lisa Chesser Says:

    Traveling into the mind of an animal, even momentarily, is the best experience I’ve had. I’ve never had that happen with a bird though. Fantastic essay.

    Reply

  12. cindy knoke Says:

    Just now reading , “H is for Hawk,” by Helen MacDonald, she says, “History collapses when you hold a hawk.” Fascinating and well written book~

    Reply

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