Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Book Review, "Falcon" (2006), by Helen Macdonald, part 2.

Over the past week, I've been suffering from a horrible virus which is left me pretty much on fit to do anything involving physical exertion or even talking! In a way, even though I've spent far more time than usual sleeping, this sedentary existence has allowed me to read and reflect on Helen Macdonald's "Falcon" (2006) in a keenly focused way.

The sheer wonder of these creatures that Macdonald is so keen to articulate is truly amazing, and I am beginning to understand not only her own obsession with these highly developed masters of the sky, but the wider sense of awe beyond those involved in falconry, or even conservation of these animals. The aura that all birds of prey hold, in their skill and extreme sensory abilities, is somehow strengthened and supplemented with our own human interpretation. This, which intertwined with a sense of discreet isolation or separateness, a bit like an aloof man of religion, a doctor, a top sportsman, eminent politician, industry leader, university professor or even a highly decorated soldier.  Humans naturally hold such people in awe.  We metaphorically and sometimes physically, put them on a pedestal, in much the same way we also do the same with raptors. (Consider Horus, the Egyptian God, the highest deity, depicted as a human with a Peregrine's head, discussed in earlier blogs).  Indeed, we put Falcons onto perches that are pedestals in their own right.

This humanised view, "the invisible mental lens of your own [human] culture through which [we] see the world," is what anthropologist Franz Boas calls Kulturbrille. (Macdonald, 2006, p15).If I recall, I think the word is a compound of culture and spectacles, that is eyeglasses. It is an allusion that we all view the world from a different standpoint. An English translation might be rose-tinted glasses, but I think the German version removes the idea of an ideal. That is, Kulturbrille is a much more personal thing, each of us can see positive or negative aspects independently.

Nevertheless, the point that Macdonald is making is again related to this mirror that we tend to use that reflects nature with ourselves. We make our own meanings from imaginary or real situations in encounters with animals. The animals, however, have no such symbolic needs to satisfy themselves. Their lives are occupied with survival, eating, breeding and flying.

I accept that this is, to a great extent, part of my own quest to make meaning through art and digital media. Equally, the search for mediation, between AJ Baker and his peregrines unfolds as his own impossible desire to virtually become one. Indeed Macdonald writes on p 17 and 18 about Baker's obsession to connect with the peregrines which eventually, at least to Baker, is successful after 10 years of dogged study.

 Macdonald's initial chapters of "Falcon" provide an excellent introduction to falcon's in general and covers many of the more popular species out of the 60 or so known Raptors within Falconidae.
With regards to my own work, I see a huge caveat that Macdonald points out in the section "What Is It like to Be a Falcon?" where she states: [...]
"To try to attempt to understand the living world of another person is philosophically suspect; for a different animal, the attempt is perhaps absurd, - but undeniably fascinating."
While this might be a warning shot for my own pursuits, there is more, when coupled with the thought from Werner Hertzog that I read recently in the Guardian. [ He states that anybody who tries to make a film about JA Baker's the Peregrine] "should be taken out and shot" makes me a little bit uneasy, to say the least!

I'm referring here to a recent article in the Guardian entitled "Violent Spring: The nature book that predicted the future" published on 15th April 2017, by Robert McFarlane. I'm delighted that this newspaper has decided to celebrate the 50th year of publication of JA Baker's "The Peregrine" (1967), as this alone further underlines the currency of my own work.  A highly fortuitous observation on their part for me, I must say!
 Despite the Hertzog warning that "whoever tries to make a feature film of The Peregrine should be shot without trial," (his exact words).  I'm not trying to make a feature film, far from it, I'm reversing the narrative hopefully in such a way that it is not a mirror but a different point of view.  Maybe the grand master, Hertzog, may forgive me and accept in small part, that perhaps, my own naive arrogance is sufficient to allow me to continue.

Coming back to Dr Helen Macdonald's more scientific examination of what it might be like to be a Peregrine, the sheer speed in which they conduct their existence alone, means that their reactions are virtually within a different dimension of reality to that of humans. For example, Macdonald quotes that our combination of the persistence of vision and our ability to process moving pictures. (The old celluloid film, if I recall had a rate of approximately 16 frames per second, which provided a small amount of flicker). This rests around 20 frames per second. Hence interlaced television for the past 30 or so years (until the advent of HD) runs at 25 frames per second. Apparently, this seems to be too slow for Falcons to even recognise. They have the ability to see approximately 70 to 80 frames per second! This is just one example, and I have already begun to articulate the visual acuity of hawks and falcons elsewhere in my blogs so I need not repeat it here.

The detailed research and myriad wealth of knowledge that Macdonald has acquired over many years are expertly explained together with our historical and cultural union with these birds, not only in the Western traditions but moreover, a whole global picture of man's relationship with them. Many of the sources that I have researched appear in her book. An example; I was pleased to see the work of Vance Tucker, whom as I have just mentioned in the previous paragraph, provided me with the abundant research into the anatomy of falcon's eyes. His work is mentioned on p 38, in reference to the fast turns that Falcons have to make when exiting from a stoop (A near vertical dive). They experience G forces of over 25 Gs. Military aircraft pilots in pressure suits are likely to pass out (lose consciousness) at much beyond 6 or 7Gs. Accepted, there is a massive weight difference between a falcon and human, nevertheless the adaptations in the anatomy of falcons, and to a larger degree peregrines, in particular, shows how supremely attuned nature has allowed them to become.

The historical relationships between man and Falcons are highly diversified. So much of Macdonald's work brings focus to how their influence upon humans has been fundamental to our own development and culture. So much of it is often taken for granted. But the threat to this companion species cannot be underestimated.
In chapter 4 of "Falcon" Macdonald delineates the steady and undeniable decline of these magnificent creatures. This is even before the advent of DDT being used as a pesticide throughout the globe after World War II, which almost put a nail in the coffin of Horus (metaphorically speaking) and the whole raptor apex species.

Thankfully, by the early 1960s, there was a new recognition of the damage that DDT was causing, not only in America but in Europe. In 1962 Rachel Carson published the book "Silent Spring" (I have just ordered a copy!), Which provided a huge wake-up call to the general public about the lethality of pesticides and the damage that was being caused, not only to the natural world but ultimately to humans themselves. Others also were waking up to the urgent need to try and save a huge number of raptor species. (2006, pages 128 to 131).

In the United Kingdom work had already started at the Monks Wood Experimental Research Station in the toxicity of pesticides on apex predators, and raptors including Peregrines. I was delighted to see the connection to Huddersfield at this point in Macdonald's book, with a picture of 'our very own' Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who visited the establishment in 1970 (2006, p 133). (PM Wilson was born and schooled in Huddersfield, living in the town for much of his younger years and continued to support the town football club through his life. He never lost the Yorkshire accent.  I was fortunate to briefly meet him in his later years, well after he had retired from active politics).

Image of Harold Wilson, from "Falcon" by Helen MacDonald (2006) p133.
Scan took from an original photograph by an unknown photographer.
I love to see these connections, and while I'm very much aware that circumstance, luck and serendipity are all curiously linked through some random and unexplainable coincidences, they provide meaning and motivation to continue.

In reflecting on so much of this book over the last week or so, this seems to be a general connection emerging between my own lines of enquiry, and it seems Dr Helen Macdonald. The feeling that "I'm onto something" is continually being strengthened by even the smallest encounters. I hope this continues as there is a deep sense of fulfilment on the one hand, but unbounded curiosity and a yearning to learn more on the other.


Carson, R. (1962) "Silent Spring" Penguin Books, London [1999 edition].
Holloway, D.J. (2008), "When Species Meet", The University Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, USA.
Macdonald, H. (2006), "Falcon", Reaction Books Ltd, London.
Macdonald, H. (2014), "H is for Hawk", Vintage Books, London.
MacFarlane, R. (2017), The Guardian Newspaper, 15th April 2017, "Violent Spring; The book that predicted the future... https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/15/the-peregrine-by-ja-baker-nature-writing
Tucker, V.A. (2000) “THE DEEP FOVEA, SIDEWAYS VISION AND SPIRAL FLIGHT PATHS IN RAPTORS” Department of Biology, Duke University, Box 90338, Durham, NC,
in The Journal of Experimental Biology 203, The Company of Biologists Limited, Great Britain  (pp 3745 – 3754).

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