‘A Peregrine’s Eye’ by Richard Smyth

An essay now. (Yegods! Children’s books, recipes, field guide entries and now an essay! Has the man no respect for the sacred form of the short story? Probably not. Soz.)

It’s a celebration of birds, and in particular birdsong – a subject close to my own heart. But more than that, it’s a reflection on how we experience the world, on the nature of paying attention. As Derek Smalls observed as he stood alongside his fellow Spinal Tap members at the grave of Elvis: “it certainly puts perspective on things”.

The perspective here is the peregrine’s – “its vision is around eight times better than mine: easily good enough to make out the Eeyores on my daughter’s pyjamas”. What can it see from its perch 70 metres up on the nearby mill chimney? “A hundred different towns, a half-dozen different cities, all that sprawling human landscape … is drawn as if by a drawstring into the scope of one bird’s raking binocular vision.”

Too much fucking perspective, you might say.

From sight to sound, so much of it mere background noise to humans, if indeed we notice it at all. Smyth makes a case for noticing: “standing with your back against a forty-metre beech, you feel that you’re inside a cell of bird noise”. And he touches on the strange untouchability of birdsong: “As the birds’ noise yard-by-yard maps out the landscape, we’re not just here, we’re everywhere.”

I forgive him the shade he throws on the dunnock’s “pointless reeling” (we will never see eye to eye on this – I love a dunnock’s scattery babble) for this delightful description of the back yard blackbird – “that familiar rustic hurdygurdy burble”.

Most of all this is a welcome placing of nature observation in the context of real lives. Not for Smyth the worn idea of Lone Man Communing With The Nature. “I don’t know who has the time for transcendence.”

Damn right. 

First published in Songs of Place and Time: Birdsong And The Dawn Chorus In Natural History And The Arts, edited by Mike Collier, Gaia Project 2020. You can read it on Richard’s website here

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