A peregrine tore Reading town centre apart, scything the air in two with sharp, clipped wingbeats. It brought to mind a sleek submarine or a lead bullet, wreaking destruction. I couldn’t have known that such an analogy was immediately being rendered inappropriate by the events unfolding in Paris that very same morning. The language of gun-bred violence is, of course, almost always inappropriate, but it isn’t always as visible in the western news.
In many conservation debates, especially that surrounding human population growth, I often find myself sticking up for our species. Since I can’t see that our origins are demonstrably different from those of any other organism, I believe we have as much ‘right’ to exist as anything else, however you might define rights and where they come from. Our greed and recklessness are certainly causing plenty of problems, for ourselves and for other wildlife, but for me the appropriate response is not to hope for mass human suffering and ultimately extinction.
People are capable of much that is wonderful, from the diversity of human art to the simple pleasures of good food, good company and good conversation. All of these make the world a better place. But at the same time we are, alas, capable of acts I cannot even begin to fathom, of depravity beyond words. If it is human ‘intelligence’ that leads us to murder each other in cold blood over race or religion or a stupid jokey cartoon, then it is a troubled gift. Perhaps we are different after all, and not in an admirable way.
I have to be honest: the world often scares me. More specifically, other people do. Not just those who are murderously insane, but the petty and the self-absorbed, the vain and the small-minded. And I fear the failings that must lie within me, too: ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’
Is a suspicion of people common in those who watch birds? I recently finished reading J. A. Baker’s classic work of nature writing, The Peregrine. In prose as fabulous and otherworldly as the birds he describes, Baker recounts a semi-fictionalised, wholly solitary winter watching peregrines on the Essex marshes. It’s a book that is at once stirring and troublingly strange, in which the line between watcher and watched becomes ever more blurred. It took me a long time to warm to it. Does Baker envy the peregrine’s mastery of the air, seeking a share in the falcon’s omnipotence? Or, by coming so close to its own necessary but ruthless violence, is he seeking to exorcise a darkness of his own?
Nature is not a miracle cure that offers instant cheer and happiness, as Richard Mabey memorably pointed out at an event last year, recalling how he just as often returns from a walk moved to tears as he does grinning from ear to ear. But I hold out hope that by immersing ourselves in nature we will tend, in the long run, towards becoming more grounded, more peaceful, and more content. Better human beings, in other words. I can’t express how necessary that transformation seems right now.