by Rosemary McKinnon
The Economist is an unlikely magazine in which to read information about birds, and yet, a 2021 Christmas article sought to bring attention to some unusual men who have traveled further into the world of birds than most of us will ever even imagine. Many people turn to bird watching as a solace from the cares of everyday life or to become more closely in tune with nature. Very few of us actually want to become birds.
“Of Birds and Men: How men long to be at one with the spirits of the air” explores these few. An Italian, Angelo d’Arrigo, learned to fly, rigid arms outstretched borne aloft by a hang-glider, in order to learn about bird migration patterns. He flew with desert hawks from Senegal to the Mediterranean and then helped western Siberian cranes raised in captivity learn how to migrate 5,500km from Siberia to the Caspian Sea. Before his early death he raised two young condor checks from eggs and then he taught them how to fly by crouching, running and jumping-off. He called his project “Metamorphosis: man into bird” and, in so far as this is possible, he seems to have achieved this goal. A second man, Sam Lee, became a bird musician, singing with nightingales in the English woods during April and May and developing a unique communication with them through harmonic whistles, “spinning myself farther back into the web of nature” until he became one with the nightingales through song.
What are the sources of such passionate quests by men to become more like birds?
The third man mentioned in the article was an Englishman. John Alec Baker lived in Essex and is best known for his remarkable book, The Peregrine (1967). Robert MacFarlane, a well-known British writer on the subject of landscape, lives in Cambridge in the east of England on the border of Essex, where he is a fellow at Emmanuel College. In his own intriguing book, Landmarks, MacFarlane has given some serious thought to the psychology behind Baker’s obsession with hawks and his extraordinary book. Baker was a private and pained man who was severely myopic. He was diagnosed as a child with rheumatic fever and as an adolescent with ankylosing spondylitis – acute, inflammatory arthritis which fuses muscle, bone and ligament in the spine. Baker was introduced to bird watching in the 1950s by a friend and it became first a distraction, then a passion and finally an obsession. He became enraptured by “the predatory nature of falcons, their decisive speed, their awesome vision and subtle killings.”
Housed in the library at the University of Essex are 1,600 pages of notes and field journals which, after five meticulous drafts, were distilled into the hyperkinetic prose of The Peregrine. This is not merely a book about bird hunting, killing and feeding but a book about becoming a falcon, learning to see the world through their eyes, and ultimately escaping the human shape into the wildness of the bird – the very antithesis of Baker’s struggle with limited eye sight and mobility. Baker teaches himself to see like a peregrine. He “sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist… He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries… He sees maps of black and white.” In MacFarlane’s words he “becomes the catascopos, the looker down – a role usually reserved for Gods, pilots and mountaineers.” MacFarlane explores the role of binoculars as a way of focused looking which excludes the periphery of the surroundings and suggests that this is the perfect emblem of Baker’s own intense and intensely limited vision through which he pursues his obsession. Through close observation Baker identifies with peregrines and escapes his own limitations.
These three unusual men are not mere observers but are steeped in the world of birds. Angelo d’Arrigo flies with birds as their parent and teacher. Sam Leo sings and communicates as a bird, but only Baker actually attempts to describe what it means to “be” a bird.
Those who subscribe to the Economist can read or listen to the full article at https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2021/12/18/of-birds-and-men. Mike Fanning has offered to share his copy of the article with those who don’t subscribe. Contact him at email@example.com.