Doodles in the Sky
We’d chuckle as the peregrines sparred with each other like tumbling airborne puppies. One morning a pair of peregrines flew by us at eye level.
A quarter century ago, my son Dave had a series of summer jobs helping re-introduce peregrine falcons to places their ancestors inhabited before pesticides nearly exterminated the species. Dave’s job was to feed chicks imported from Cornell University’s hawk barn and protect them from intruders until they were old enough to leave the nest and fend for themselves. I visited Dave’s worksite on a Maine cliff top one June and remember the awe I felt watching the juvenile hawks honing their aerial skills in the weeks before they learned to kill. We’d sit at the cliff edge and observe stoops in which peregrines tucked in their pointed wings and plummeted hundreds of feet at 150 miles per hour. We’d watch the young hawks harass blue jays and crows, approaching laterally at speeds that made their mock prey appear motionless. We’d chuckle as the peregrines sparred with each other like tumbling airborne puppies. One morning a pair of peregrines flew by us at eye level. They were on parallel courses, one a couple of feet higher than the other and regularly dropping down to buzz its companion. The companion retaliated by rolling over and flying upside down so that it presented lethal yellow talons to its persecutor above. After several beats, the lower peregrine completed its roll, a graceful 360-degree rotation made without the slightest diminution of speed.
Recalling that moment, I think of Olympic gymnasts twisting and gyrating in the air before landing squarely on two feet. I think of John Coltrane soloing into saxophone orbit for 16 bars, then returning to earth at precisely the right instant exactly on key. And I think of a book I just read, J.A. Baker’s 1967 classic “The Peregrine.” Baker spent a decade pedaling his bicycle after peregrines on the flat coastal fields and marshes near his home in eastern England. His diary-like book chronicles Baker’s attempt to merge his spirit with the bird he loved. Describing a falcon “weaving through the wind with sudden dips and swerves,” he reports, “This mastery of the roaring winds, this majesty and noble power of flight, made me shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement.” The falcon passes and Baker is left with “nothing but the wind blowing . . . and the glory gone.” On a warm March day, Baker lies on his back in the grass and watches a peregrine’s motion create “beautiful patterns and doodles in the sky, as swiftly evanescent as the swirling shapes of waves upon the shore.” And at one point, in a revealing moment of wishful thinking, Baker speculates about a peregrine that allows him to creep close: “I think he regards me now as part hawk, part man.” Robert Macfarlane, in his introduction to “The Peregrine,” makes a point about Baker that also may apply to all our attempts to connect with nature. He writes, “For to abolish yourself through an intense focus on another creature is, in a way, to evade death. It is an act of self-destruction that leads to resurrection . . . This self-obliteration is precisely what Baker sought.”
Dan North, a retired journalist who lives in Jersey City, discovered Fairview Farm in 1996 while bicycling past on Larger Cross Road. When he rode down to explore, he loved what he saw and has been coming back to wander around ever since. We are pleased to feature his essays here on our web site. His book, The Slow Walker, is a collection of 52 beautifully constructed reflections on his walks in the woods. Copies of The Slow Walker are available from RHA — please contact Kate Deans at 908-234-1852, ext. 216 or via Email for more information.