The Peregrine Falcon is undoubtedly ‘unique in its flight’. The bird’s stoop, beautifully described by J.A.Baker – ‘he had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames … diving down from the sun’ (‘February 10th’) – can exceed 150 miles per hour. Not surprisingly, the bird has been portrayed as celestial and Solar, and associated with transcendence, with rupture or relationship between heavenly radiance and earthly mortality.
I’m not so sure about The Risen. ( the final poem in Ted Hughes’ Cave Birds sequence ). Here, the rising Falcon is likened to a released convict. Keith Sagar thinks that Hughes let himself be pulled by the ‘life-denying’ Bardo Thodol in the direction of transcendental imagery he was no longer comfortable with. He also feels that the Falcon in the poem is incapable of love, ‘inhuman in its totality’. If this is, as Neil Roberts insists, a poem about a natural creature, its portrayal is haunted by human stories and skewed by mythopoetic concerns. The bird’s incandescence may be powerfully evoked, but this is an even more partial image than J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine.
In various shamanistic traditions The Falcon appears as an assisting spirit. The Hungarian Turul perches at the top of the world tree. Likewise, in Norse mythology, all-seeing Vedfolnir perches on the beak of an Eagle at the top of Yggdrasil, and keeps Odin informed about events in all the worlds below. In Cree tradition the Peregrine nests on a cloud and brings guidance from the Great Spirit.
When Peregrines entered my world in the mid 1990’s I was only dimly aware of this aspect of their cultural reputation. I was excited by the birds’ arrival, so, not surprisingly, found them entering my dream life. Before revisiting this, however, I’d like to emphasise the magic of the material ‘real’, and the value of heartfelt birdwatching.
Because Peregrine Falcons breed in the hills hereabouts I have been privileged to witness aspects of their lives that don’t feature in J.A. Baker’s account. On the 22nd April 1997, for example, I witnessed a spectacle that, for me, utterly dispels the notion that a Falcon might be ‘incapable of love’. I was crouching down, looking at some Shaggy Ink Cap fungi, when a single loud ringing “keeeek” summoned my attention upwards. A pair of Peregrines were circling overhead. What happened next was extraordinarily beautiful. First the Tiercel (the male bird) mounted a mock attack against the Falcon, who rolled over nonchalantly, extending her formidable talons. Then they began to climb, very gradually, spiraling round on a thermal updraft, sometimes together, sometimes facing each other across a continuous circle of light and air, until eventually two tiny dots melted into a feint layer of very high cloud and disappeared from view. From my groundling’s perspective their courtship ceremony felt like a sublime demonstration of the artistry of existence.
On another occasion I have witnessed a Falcon release her prey for two fumbling juveniles to lunge at, then drop like a stone on to the hapless bird, only to repeat the exercise, patiently showing her offspring how they must obtain food. I’ve also watched youngsters exuberantly slaloming down a rock face, over and over again. Each of these was probably a once in a lifetime experience.
Some dream encounters were also memorable. In one dream, I watched a mid-air kill in slow motion. Then, somehow, the bird had taken a chunk out of the side of a cow. I was momentarily sickened. There was a sense of danger. If the bird had attacked a cow, perhaps it would attack a human next? In another dream a Peregrine landed on my right arm. I thought I would need a protective glove, but the bird somehow fused with my wrist. I reached out with my other hand and stroked its warm feathery underbelly. The bird looked into my eyes with a steady gaze.
Dreams like these reflect a process of attunement, empathy, and perhaps dialogue. But occasionally something a bit stranger happens. The following dream occurred before any of the above, about a week after watching a local pair for only the third time.
4.50 a.m. 3rd April 1995 Dream extract: ‘I’m with someone, floating, rocking backwards and forwards, in a nest or basket like structure which moves as if attached to a pendulum, with the motion of a very high bough in the wind. There is a pair of Peregrines nearby. We watch a young Peregrine perched on the bough. Its parent comes and lands beside it, encouraging the fledgling to take its first flight. Then both of them hop on to the wrist/arm of the person with me, who goes to stroke the adult bird. I whisper not to do this (realising how sharp the Peregrine’s beak is). Then both birds fly to a higher bough. We are told that Peregrines nest on ‘ley lines’ (at this point there’s a brief image of tall timber trunks or posts, in a line). Then we have to lift ourselves, by becoming weightless, back on to a raft of logs, floating giddily high in the sky, before returning to the normal reality of our bodies. I somehow manage to do this.
The feeling tone of the dream was exhilarating, exceptionally vivid.
Postscript: That afternoon I felt strongly ‘called out’ by the dream to visit the Peregrines, but was feeling unwell, so reluctantly decided not to set out for the place where they had taken up residence. Instead I opted for a short walk. At 4.55 p.m I reached the Standing Stone, and was about to return home, when my attention was caught by a strange, piercing, high pitched, almost sneeze-like call. A pair of Magpies and a Crow broke into flight, clearly disturbed by something. Momentarily disoriented, I peered over a dry stone wall, expecting to see an unfamiliar bird amongst the sheep and lambs. Then I looked up and saw a Peregrine wheeling powerfully in the strong wind. She circled two or three times above me, before soaring downwind, so fast that her image quickly dissolved. I was elated. This was the only time that I’ve seen a Peregrine in that location. It felt almost as though the bird had come to see me, and lift my spirits.
Footnote: the location was near one of a pair of stones where I had once thought there might be an alignment. I had tested this and found it not to be the case, but the association was sufficient to make this the only spot locally that might be associated with the idea of ‘ley lines’ (which have not been of much interest to me otherwise). There is also a line of timber telegraph poles there. The dream may therefore have offered a garbled clue about what was about to happen almost exactly twelve hours, one half rotation of planet earth, later. The timing seems to underscore the contrasting but related nature of these two events, one nocturnal, lunar, dream-visionary, otherworldly, the other diurnal, solar, material, this-worldly, and ‘real’.
Whilst reflecting on the above I was interested to read that in falconry the Peregrine can become quite affectionate – one falconer even had a tiercel who would wake him in the morning by nibbling his ear. My experiences seemed to suggest a communicative, even friendly, species. An awesome hunter too, of course. Those eyes, dark globes ringed with gold, resemble two miniature Solar eclipses, an image redolent of death and renewal.
For a recording of a Peregrine Falcon’s alarm call, made by Simona Inaudi at Roccabruna, Italy ( Creative Commons NC-ND2.5 ):