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Monday, 21 January 2013

A Gyrfalcon for a King

Reposting this as it seems to have gotten lost over the years...

“An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, and a Saker for a Knight; a Merlin for a lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, and a Kestrel for a Knave” – The Boke of St Albans, 1486. 

There are some experiences, which are in retrospect even more powerful, where the solitude, the landscape, the time of day, the wildlife and any amount of other emotional and physical variables (perhaps my own state of mind?) combine to create something affecting and physical. And it was in Iceland that I saw her. The Gyrfalcon. The King’s bird. 

I didn’t see her until she was upon me. I was sitting deep down beneath a small volcanic cliff amongst the boulders sloping down to a shingle beach into the sea. Nearby, the carcass of a juvenile killer whale gave the air a taste and in the bay the head of grey seal watched the shore as if keeping a watchful eye over the sleeping but still lethal orca, it’s dorsal fin clearly visible as it lay on the beach. Little auks were whirring close over the surface of the water and behind me the silent hulk of the volcano, covered in cloud. 

And then, from my left, just a few metres away, she came. Over the edge of the small cliff where the peaty turf hung in ribbons over the rock. She was not alone. Behind her trailed a ragged streamer of mobbing birds; wheatear, oyster catcher and a purple sandpiper. At least five of them testing their will and speed against the gyrfalcon. Amongst the melee she seemed almost motionlessly calm, beating her powerful way in slow motion. The feeling of muscular and taut control was pervasive, a visceral and tangible presence. She moved so perfectly that she could have been on a rail. 

She passed over my head and over the opposing cliff bank before disappearing over the volcanic grassland pitted with sink holes and caves. I stood up to climb the bank but was not able to see her as her speed had already taken her behind some upstanding volcanic rocks. And then, just as a red sky gives away the presence of an invisible sun, I knew she was there, but I couldn’t see her. I saw a sign of her presence, a ripple of clamour in the sky where she had passed.She had scythed over the surface of the ground putting waders and other birds up and now all that was left was a pair of merlin climbing and stooping down to a spot that was still invisible to me. She was there. 

I walked over the rough ground until I could see her and, thinking that my sudden and intermittent appearances over the tussocks and mounds would scare her, I sat and watched from a distance. But soon I pressed on to get closer. She sat, seemingly impervious to the screeching of the merlins, at the very top of a tall, grass covered volcanic stone. The merlins shyed away from my presence long before the falcon who looked at me with cool and quick precision. At that moment the Gyrfalcon was absolutely in its landscape, full of sorrowful tundric beauty. I watched her for few heavy minutes before she dropped away from the edge and circled around to my right, disappearing behind the seaward cliffs. 

The thrill of the encounter passed, I was left lying where she’d left me, looking up at a grey sky. But her presence had tied me into that moment and that place. The presence of the living animal had forced me to take a fresh view of the landscape and my place in it. This is what it means to be human. As an animal in the landscape we can be observer or particpant. But to be separated from it? To move around in our own world instead of the one we’re already a part of, to live impervious to the potential effect on us of our natural environment, is a form of surrender; a self-imposed exile which is ultimately found lacking, lonely and fruitless.

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