Birds and bodies

Replica eggs
Porcelain replicas of illegally collected birds’ eggs (made by artist Andy Holden)

Term 5

I’ve seen through the eyes of a bird, and been shaken to the core. I’ve just read The Peregrine by JA Baker, one of the great texts of modern nature writing.  There are many bodies in this book – countless peregrines and their violent kills, Baker himself, and the effect on my own body of reading it. Baker’s biographer Hetty Saunders says ‘he strove in his writing to inhabit the falcon’s body – to see through its own eyes, feel through its body’.  And his physical difficulties – the chronic inflammatory condition ankylosing spondylitis coupled with extreme short sight – had a bearing on what and how he wrote.

Hetty Saunders and Robert Macfarlane at a discussion on JA Baker's biography
Hetty Saunders and Robert Macfarlane at a discussion on JA Baker’s new biography at the London Review Bookshop

First, the background.  The slim volume was published in 1967, won a literary prize and went in and out of print. It has caught hold of writers, campaigners, birders and general readers, and in recent years has been championed by writer Robert Macfarlane  among others. He calls it ‘landscape on acid’. Film director Werner Herzog says it’s a must for aspiring film directors, yet regards it as unfilmable.  On paper it’s a meticulous diary of one winter’s observations of peregrines around the Blackwater Estuary in Essex.  In reality it’s a composite of ten years’ obsessive birdwatching from 1954 to 1964 compressed tightly into six months. It’s fact and poetry combined.

The bird he had in his sights –“that crossbow flinging through the air” – is a supreme hunter, ‘stooping’ from the sky to snatch its victims at well over a hundred miles an hour. Pesticide use (especially DDT) was rife when Baker was writing and peregrines at the top of the food chain absorbed more than most. Their eggshells weakened, breeding reduced and extinction was close. Baker documents his questing pursuit of the peregrine, using dense visceral prose to shake us awake to the vicious reality of nature and humankind.

Time after time he produces word pictures of flight and pursuit, with rapid and fatal movement in the sky. In his entry for 20 December a line of mallards comes into view:

“Looking up at them through binoculars, I see for the first time a falcon peregrine circling very high, beating and gliding in the fading light.  She stoops, dilates like a pupil of an eye as it passes from day’s brilliance into dusk.  She is the size of a lark, then of a jay, now of a crow, now of a mallard.  Mallard spray outwards and climb as she dives between them.  She bends up through the sky again, curves under and up with the momentum of her stoop, crashes into a mallard, bursts it into a drift of feathers.  Grappled together, they glide above the wood, then sweep down to the frosted ride.  Mallard fly along the line of the wood towards the lake.  Nothing has changed, though one is gone.”

He creates movement and dynamism through an intense stew of verbs and metaphors. It’s exhilarating and addictive, yet stark and indigestible.  I can only stomach it in short bursts. From my Alexander perspective he’s overly obsessive, too much of an ‘end-gainer’, concentrating exclusively on sighting the peregrine and pinning it down in prose.  But it’s his restricted and singular focus that gives the book its furious power.

In some ways Baker’s body is barely present in the book, and he remains mysterious as a narrator. Away from the page he was until recently an elusive figure. However the Baker archives are now more complete and his life is better understood after the biography My House of Sky  was published earlier this year. He effaces himself in his writing, yet his body caused him pain and difficulty. The fusing joints from his inflammatory condition meant he couldn’t use his fingers easily, nor could he range as freely outdoors as he wanted. His severe myopia affected what he saw, so binoculars were critical. Despite all this, he pursued and described his quarry. Shaman-like, he almost turned into one of the most visually acute, powerfully explosive and mobile birds of all.

“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 a tree.  A vivid sense of place grows like another limb.”

I’ve had my copy of The Peregrine for some years and it remained unread until last week.  I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages. Every time I picked it up, another bloody kill made me put it back down. But something has shifted in me.  I’m more stable now in my body, more comfortable in my skin. The Peregrine might ruffle my feathers, but it won’t knock me out of the sky.

I started by saying I’ve been shaken to the core by reading the book. Yes, it has changed my perception of the natural world and my place in it.  I am shaken – but still standing. In the past I was more easily pushed off balance and somehow I seemed to absorb it physically. Now after six years of Alexander lessons, and nearly two years of more intense training to be an Alexander teacher, I’ve found an inner stability and a deeper resilience in myself. I’m more able to deal with whatever comes along.  Read The Peregrine if you haven’t already. It’s a strong and heady brew, so be sure your body is up to it.

Photos from the exhibition ‘Natural Selection’ by Andy Holden & Peter Holden. The eggs are porcelain replicas, made by artist Andy Holden, of a hoard of 7130 illegally collected birds’ eggs, found by the police in a raid in 2006. 

Replica eggs by Andy Holden

Replica eggs

Replica eggs

Bird books and nest

You may also be interested in a previous post on The Hunting Season

Marching to remember

Horse leading paradeTerm 5

Police horses and pearlies, cadets and marching bands all assembled in the Sunday morning cold, alongside veterans, local dignitaries and others wanting to pay their respects. The nearby plaque to those who died in a V1 bomb attack in 1944 was a sombre reminder of why the Remembrance parade starts here.

Adjustment to police cadet capAs I arrived I saw uniforms being adjusted and frantic phone calls made to those cutting it fine for the prompt start. John, the local Pearly King and his son Darren, the Pearly Prince, were both in attendance, sparkling and weighed down in their traditional Cockney suits.

Pearly King and Prince

As the varied groups gathered in formation, I noticed how they held themselves and what their hands were doing. Even before the parade began, body language in uniform was stiff and formal. The Honourable Artillery Company and the army cadets clasped hands behind their backs, while the police cadets held their arms stiffly by their sides, hands curled and closed. Chests were puffed out, shoulders back, legs stiff and breathing restricted. Feet stood close together, boots polished and shiny.

Honourable Artillery Company
Honourable Artillery Company
Army Cadets
Army cadets
Police cadets
Police cadets

Drummers

The drummers were more relaxed as they waited, despite their starring role at the head of the parade. I thought about the heavy drums they held strapped in front of them, and the effect that carrying the weight while playing and marching would  have on their bodies over the next hour or so.

The troops massed into line, an officer barked the command and the parade moved off. Every so often a leader shouted an order to keep the disparate marchers in time.  Each group saluted as they passed the local fire station, with firefighters standing helmeted and to attention outside.

Parade moves off

Rigid military bearing is the opposite of the free open movement I’m working towards with the Alexander Technique, and I was acutely aware of the contrast as the soldiers marched by. I felt uncomfortable as I watched their taut faces and held body language. I felt relieved and breathed more easily when they had moved on.

Honourable Artillery Company marching

Honourable Artillery Company

The parade continued, marching to the drummers’ beat and collecting more officials and children’s groups. We all came to a quiet standstill at the war memorial, where hundreds of people had gathered for an outdoor inter-faith service.

Sea cadets

Brass bandThe crowd hushed as the trumpeter sounded the Last Post and we stood for two minutes in silence. Representatives of local groups and members of the public laid poppy wreaths then the crowd dispersed to warm themselves in the coffee shops nearby.  Poppies

Wrapping it up

Baguette packaging Term 5

A recent trip to France had me wandering up and down supermarket aisles, all in the interests of Alexander research.   I wanted to know what French food packaging could tell me about body use. More so than in the UK, it seems that human and animal bodies are used to promote food. Not surprisingly, given its place in French life, the story begins with cheese.

First on my shopping list were the Coulommiers couple, both in traditional dress on the brightly coloured box. He holds the cheese in his open left hand, but scolds her with his right, as her eyes pop out and her hands grasp at the delicious box of creamy cheese. It’s a good example of Alexander end-gaining – her focus on the cheesy prize limits her awareness of what’s around her and her own body use.

CoulommiersNext up was Cousteron man. He comes from another strand of cheese marketing – the producer or farmer smiling broadly with farm or well-fed cows in the background.  Eyes are twinkly, body language is open, one hand clasps the cheese. He’s reliable and trustworthy – you can safely pick this pack and trace its origins from your basket back to producer, animals and land. Given the sheer quantity of cheese made in France, it’s also a way of differentiating between brands, giving them a personal and local touch, marking them out from others of the same kind or region.

CousteronFurther along the aisle I found a monk silently marketing another brand, conveying in a single hand gesture the heavenly taste and delicious secret of Chausee aux Moines.  Occasionally animals are allowed to edge the humans aside and star on the box. Cows are often red, sometimes laughing, always content and friendly.  Goats and sheep are modest, less flashy, perhaps for the more discerning cheese-eater.

The shelves of fromage exhausted, I moved on to ‘heritage’ food, where the human body in action is used to emphasise tradition, quality and natural simplicity.  Body use seems better.  Whether cracking walnuts by hand on a cake box, gathering additive-free salt or carrying milk churns to turn into butter, everyone seems balanced, upright and contentedly absorbed in their tasks.  There are no extravagant gestures here, but more simple line drawings, a strong sense of workers getting on with the job, producing and advertising food with no excess effort or tension.

Cracking walnuts

When food originates abroad rather than in France, the packaging still features humans, but often reinforces national stereotypes – a Samurai warrior on Japanese rice, a Canadian lumberjack on maple syrup, North African or Middle Eastern faces on couscous and spices.  No people for post-Brexit British cheddar though – just Big Ben and a red London bus.

I found the most interesting food packaging just as I was heading to the checkout.  A few kilometres from the supermarket is one of the largest Buddhist centres in France, producing a range of calming teas and infusions.  These had their own distinctive display, with fluid drawings of horses, monkeys, birds and flowers in bright colours on reusable tins.  It was the quarrelling cheese couple that had drawn me in, but the flowing animals that guided me home.Le Pere Normand

Camembert

Chaussee aux Moines

Coulommiers cows

La vache qui rit

Salt

Isigny butter

cheddar cheese

Japanese rice

Maple syrup

couscous

Epices Rabelais

Animal teas

Horses