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

From the hospital floor

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This is a guest post from Alexander teacher David Orman, who writes about a recent experience in hospital as he used the technique to help him deal with pain and difficulty. I interviewed David about his path to the Alexander Technique and his fibromyalgia in an earlier post.

My story begins almost twenty years ago, when as an eight-year old in the school playground, I made one cheeky insult too many to an older boy, which resulted in him punching me twice square on the nose. The nose had not been broken, but became increasingly misaligned, though I ignored it thinking the damage merely cosmetic.

Skipping forward fifteen years, as I began my Alexander Technique training the teachers pointed out how restricted my nasal breathing was. Eventually I saw a specialist, who recommended an operation to enable me to breathe properly through my nose. The deciding factor was that poor breathing affected my fibromyalgia, the severe chronic pain condition that led me to train as an Alexander Technique teacher in the first place.

I knew a lengthy stay in hospital for a nose operation, and the inactivity that came with it, would be difficult for me in creatively managing the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Complications meant I needed two operations and had to stay on a cramped ward for four days, bleeding and forbidden to leave in case of infection. I realised I had to use the Alexander Technique to cope with the torment that the combination of fibromyalgia and inactivity produces.

I found a full-length mirror in the ward toilet and used the room for some serious self-observation. I practised Alexander procedures, and used the idea of ‘non-doing’ to get comfortable in either the chair or the bed. A bed is not good for the Alexander ‘semi supine’ position, so I worked on getting release by lying down on my side. When my upper back and shoulders released, my fingers would let go too and I was often rewarded with some much needed sleep. Although this helped me manage better, my pain levels escalated – inevitable with fibromyalgia and enforced inactivity.

By the day of my second operation, the pain had become so severe that I was in great distress with a high pulse rate. I was now in a larger ward and used the extra space to lie in semi supine on the floor. The physical and emotional support this gave me was incredible. I reassured the unhappy nurses that I was a qualified Alexander Technique teacher and knew only positives could accrue from lying down like this; proof came as my pulse moved rapidly down.

Sadly, in that ward I had little control over the sufferings of my fellow patients, particularly a roofer who needed several procedures on the ward during the night after a workplace accident. I found it difficult to cope with this, and realised I must overcome my fibromyalgia and teach the technique, so that I can develop an increasing command of myself and my own reactions. The Alexander Technique was enormously helpful in preparing for the operation, and in improvising “in the moment” when the unknown developed. To end on a happy note, when my nose fully heals I can’t wait to know what my breathing and an Alexander ‘whispered ah’ will be like!

David Orman offers lessons in both London and in Kent

First Alexander lesson

Chair

Beginning of Term 5

I’ve forgotten what happened in my first Alexander lesson, except I knew it would help and wanted to continue.  At the time that seemed enough. Now, as a trainee teacher, I wish I could remember more, though in a way it doesn’t really matter.  Even so, I was happy to find Lulie Westfeldt’s account of her first lesson, clearly memorable, at the hands of FM Alexander himself.

She came from New Orleans, and contracted polio at the age of seven. Many medical interventions followed, which made things worse and left her, as she described it, “with added physical handicaps and disastrous psychological scars”. After lessons with Alexander in 1929, she joined his first training course for teachers in London in 1931. Back in the States she worked as a teacher for many years until her death in 1965.

Lessons and training brought huge benefits, though her memoirs paint a personal, not always flattering picture of Alexander the man. She’s frank about the difficulties she and her fellow students had on that first training course.  But she’s unequivocal about the experience of her initial contact with Alexander:

“In my first lesson I understood very little, if anything, of what Alexander was doing or what he wanted me to do.  He used his hands on me a great deal, and in the most subtle, delicate way, making what seemed to be minute, infinitesimal changes in my body in the region of my head, neck and back.

After a short interval, however, these tiny adjustments would add up to a substantial change which would often feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar.  And so he went on.  He worked on me while I was sitting in a chair and while I was standing up, and he also, with his hands on my head, took me in and out of a chair.

At the end of the lesson he walked me around the room with his hands on my head, and I felt as light as air.  But even this was not a pleasant feeling, as I felt shaky and uncontrolled.  My old equilibrium was gone and my legs seemed to dangle.  Alexander’s hands were amazing; sometimes they almost seemed to be doing nothing at all or something that was so imperceptible that it passed for nothing.

Yet in reality they were always building up and strengthening a new HN&B [head, neck and back] pattern, thus producing fundamental changes in my body.  It was as if my body was put on a different control.  His hands impressed me so much that I thought over the qualities they possessed.  They were dry, cool, light and impersonal, but above all they had a quality that gave me complete confidence and made me want to go with them… I enjoyed a clarity of thought and a tranquillity of emotions never before experienced.”

Not everyone has such vivid memories of a lesson, or notices profound effects. But it makes me remember the experience of hands conveying lightness, subtlety, strength, confidence and ‘doing nothing’. As the new term starts, it’s good to be reminded of what I’m working towards.

Lulie Westfeldt’s memoirs are published as “F Matthias Alexander The Man and His Work: Memoirs of Training in the Alexander Technique 1931-34”