Saturday, 13 June 2015

The wild within

As I walked from my bus into Norwich yesterday a buzzard drifted high towards the spire. I knew, from three months spent in the company of the cathedral's peregrines last spring, what would happen. As distant dots both adults scrambled into the airspace above their spire (and on it their three just-fledged chicks). As almost always, the female sent the male up to the buzzard, to drive it from her patch of sky.

This was my first sight of the Norwich peregrines this year (I've been abroad for almost all of 2015). I have missed them; and as much as them I have missed the fantastic team of staff and volunteers who watch the peregrines, who work with cathedral staff, and who - crucially - explain the lives of the birds to the public. Many thousands of people visit the peregrines each spring, or watch them from home on the Hawk and Owl Trust's webcam. For some, these breathtaking birds are a first point of contact with the natural world, and a relationship with it, a first glimpse of the wild we all carry within.

Norwich Cathedral peregrine dreamteam:
Mike, Julie, Becky and Maureen

For my friend Mike, the peregrines have been just such. Gripped by their lives on the spire the year before, last year, while I was helping to run the team, he joined us. Mike is not a man of half measures. If he does something, he does it well. He hurls himself at life with commitment, with verve, with talent and with a filthy sense of humour. The peregrines were no different and in no time a new naturalist was unfolding before us, a naturalist enchanted by everything around him, seeing the wild for the first time, hearing birdsong - really hearing it - anew. I have been privileged, at times, to share with Mike a new bird for him; and while I have been away he's kept me abreast of the wonders which have flown on brave wings into his life.

I visited the peregrines yesterday to see the birds during fledging week - always the most exciting - and to see the wonderful people who watch them. Some of my favourite peregrineers were on duty; so our morning sped by in talk of their lives and those of the birds, in watching a collared dove foodpass and the anger of the female at a herring gull who came too close (it won't be making that mistake again). Afterwards, having not caught up in all the months I've been away, Mike and I had lunch and talked, of birds and other beasts, in the sun.

There was time before my bus left for home so Mike stole me into the Castle Museum. To step inside this building, a Norman keep wrapped in Victorian pretension, is to step into my childhood. I knew at once what I wanted to see: the tiger. It was doubtless the first I ever saw, long before I ever dreamed I could see one in the wild. When I was a child there was a button on the side of its case which, when pressed, made the tiger roar. To my small child self this was thrilling.

The button is no longer there. The tiger no longer roars. The cat is there though and, on a day spent watching peregrines inspire people to inspire people about peregrines, this faded mockery of a tiger caused me to reflect on our relationships with the wild.

To the people of George V's Britain (whose king shot the Castle Museum tiger), a tiger in a case meant, I suspect, dominion over the wild, the bringing of order (British order, of course) to a wild, dangerous world. When George shot this tiger there were probably more than 50,000 tigers in India, ranging through vast areas of genuinely untamed forest. Injured tigers regularly killed people (a casual look at Jim Corbett's books is enough to confirm this) and rural people lived in deep fear. Britain's job, the king's job, was to suppress the wildness, to bring order where savagery prevailed. In killing a tiger, probably many tigers, the king confirmed his fitness for the job.

The Castle Museum's lions,
like the tiger still faded and old, still beautiful

Near the tiger there is a clever case, one of several on a theme of Victorian naturalists and their taxidermic relationship with nature, in which all of the specimens stem from Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie. The skins are frightful - the leopard's face twisted into a hideous grimace - but they represent a past relationship with nature in which the wonders of the wild world were being discovered and brought home for the edification of the public (and the filling of menagerie-owners' pockets). I mused on what went through the minds and hearts of Victorian people on visiting a travelling menagerie. For many, I suspect, although the wild was not yet something to be preserved, seeing these hapless creatures was as inspiring as pressing the button on the tiger's case for my child self, or seeing a peregrine through a telescope (provided by Viking Optical, I should add) for a child today.



Lion cub

In the next gallery are hundreds of ill-starred birds collected by Victorian naturalists in the days in which ornithology was practised with a gun. Some, like a drake Steller's eider, are the single specimens of their kind ever to have been seen - and killed - in Norfolk. Others, like great bustards and (in the gallery of Norfolk dioramas) the otter, represent species which in modern times have been driven from our county. The otter was long persecuted here but finally extinguished from Norfolk (or all but extinguished) by pollution. Happily today it has returned in force, thanks in no small measure to the tireless work of the Otter Trust (rest in peace Jean and Philip). The great bustard was wantonly hunted from our East Anglian brecks. All that remains of it today is feather and skin and dust behind glass.

It is easy to judge these Victorian and early twentieth century attitudes to nature and animals: to censure, to condemn. It is equally important to reflect on or own attitudes and to remember the world in which we ourselves live, to which we contribute. Ours is a world in which dolphins are beaten to death in Japan and elsewhere; in which seal cubs are clubbed in developed world nations; in which your biscuits and chocolate contain palm oil which - directly - condemns orangutans and thousands of other species to death in felled forests; in which dogs are boiled alive in Yulin; in which raptors are trapped and poisoned and eggs are thieved in my Norfolk; in which the British government licenses the slaying of badgers and the destruction of buzzard nests, against all scientific evidence and advice, as a sop to its political cronies.

It is hard, in such a world, to stare into the glass eyes of a tiger and righteously condemn the attitudes towards nature of Victorians or English kings. The killing continues today; and, worse, the destruction of wild space is nearing its endgame, in the UK and across the globe. 

If we are to arrest it, if sense is ever to be bashed into the skulls of our ignorant, self-serving politicians (a red kite flew over my desk just now as I looked up to find the next phrase), if our children are to live in a world full of wild wonders, we need more Mikes. We need more prophets for nature, more moments in which children stare in awe at peregrines, or ladybirds, or woodlice (that one's for you Julie), or red kites. We need a revolution in the way we see the wild. The wild we all carry within.

Walking home from my bus, by the river I saw the death-blotched stems of hemlock and the dusty perfection of the flowers of mallow and I touched it: I touched the wild within.

Hontar: You had no alternative Your Eminence. We must work in the world; the world is thus.
Altamirano: No, Senhor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.

The Mission (Movie)

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