by Elizabeth Lee Reynolds
House sparrows chirp viciously from opposing rooftops. As I make my way along the road it begins to feel like a scene from The Birds. The tiny creatures appear sinister and plotting against the humans below, and in truth they have every right. For decades we have pushed them to the peripheries in their own homes as use of pesticides across the countryside litters their contorted bodies over the landscape. But these little brown birds are now coming back in force.
Their resurgence carries a small personal victory for me. When I was about 8 I wrote a letter to Tony Blair about the dangers of pesticide use to sparrows which frequented farms. Somewhere, tucked away, I still have his reply; a short, polite but uncommitted letter from an assistant, assuring the Prime Minister’s concern for the matter.
When I wrote it, it seemed like I had done a terribly important thing, but the cynicism doesn’t take long to kick in. Despite that I still cherish my first act of environmental activism, as tame as it may be.
With the state of near environmental catastrophe the world is currently in, pesticide use and its effects have started to be a less prominent concern in activists’ agendas. Perhaps this is partly because the majority of the casualties are less obvious.
These scenes, however, were not uncommon when pesticide use first became a concern in the 1960’s. Marine biologist, Rachel Carson, played a key role in bringing the dangers to the public and government’s attention. In her powerful book Silent Spring she stated: that central problem of our age has… become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm- substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends. 1
Through an account that appealed to scientific reasoning and emotional narrative, Carson managed to completely change the public opinion of the use of these dangerous chemicals and urged forward changes to national policy on pesticide use.
On the other side of the Atlantic the elusive John Alec Baker was taking regular walks through the Essex countryside and documenting the rare peregrines he saw there. Diaries, from over ten years, would become compressed into a single winter in The Peregrine. This text was foremost a celebration of a remarkable bird which Baker dedicated intense study to and whose heavy decline he mourned. Wildlife poisoning and loss of countryside provide a dark undercurrent to this text, which many have called “an elegy” to a disappearing landscape and threatened bird; a final celebration of things that Baker thought would soon be completely lost. 2
Whether it was Baker’s early description of peregrines who “die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy insidious pollen of farm chemicals” or Carson’s lengthy explanations of “the numbers of doomed birds… in the agonized tremors that precede death” (103), many readers in the early 60’s would be able to recognise their own experiences of the death bought by chemicals. 3 In 1961 much of the English countryside was littered with dead birds as waves of new experimental pesticides were used, with similar scenes to be found in America. 4 For Baker “Peregrines were totems of a wilderness under siege” 5 and they could, if no action had been taken, have become extinct in the same year Baker’s book was published in a trend clearly linked to the introduction of ‘organochlorine’ pesticides in Britain. 6
Chemicals were rampant in this period, in the human population in the 1960’s it was impossible to find people not consuming DDT with their daily meals apart from in remote and isolated communities (Carson, 163). Although Carson primarily focuses on the situation in America there is a part of her text that ventures into England to describe the widespread destruction there due to seeds being treated with insecticides. From Baker’s own Essex one report told of 100 pheasants dying on a farm.
The use of pesticides, certainly heavily applied in the densely agricultural East Anglia, lies partly unseen in The Peregrine, perhaps sometimes even by Baker himself. As Jameson insists: “Read about the dead birds, and think toxins” (15). They slink in the background during many occasions. The 5th of January concludes with: “A fungus of whiteness grows upon the eye, and spreads along the nerves like pain” (106), implying a poison which spreads along the nerves echoing the fact that the chemicals of pesticides primarily attack the nervous system (Carson, 39).
There are very few instances where Baker refers directly to pesticides; a “poisoned crow” (100) is mentioned but otherwise it is often up to interpretation. It may even hide in the seeming tameness of the peregrines Baker observes. He can closely approach a bird, even when he hasn’t seen them in months. Perhaps rather than an endearing love story between man and bird there is a morbid twist. In Lord Shackleton’s introduction to Silent Spring he notes how foxes lose “their fear of mankind” through a sickness of unknown origin at the time, but now put down to the poisons of pesticides. 7 Pesticides burning in the peregrine’s insides may be an explanation for their unresponsiveness to Baker’s approach.
Some have also noted a certain sense of exaggeration in the report of “619 peregrine kills” over the course of ten winters (21). It would not be unfounded to imagine the peregrines might share these kills with the chemicals, especially when considering how Carson notes the poisons are known to “lie dormant like a slumbering volcano, only to flare up in periods of physiological stress” (40), such as the harsh winter of 1962-1963 that is believed to be that depicted in The Peregrine. Poison lingers unseen in the bodies of the birds; emulating those already dead, hidden under the snow, which are revealed in the thaw to expose “thirty kills” in a small area (115). From December through to February death haunts the entire landscape, where even the sun is “shrivelling, dying” (109) as two killers circling it; one causing “feeble and dying” birds (108) and the other profiting from them.
In their books Baker and Carson were writing about killers. One who is precise and patient and another whose scatter-gun approach is symbolic of the lack of consideration people often give to future consequences. But they are both perfectly constructed for murder and can both be traced by the remains of their victims. Baker details, down to almost every feature, how the peregrine is a perfect predator: “Everything he is has been evolved to link the targeting eye to the striking talon” (28).
While the peregrine has evolved over centuries to this specialised form the creation of chemicals took place over only a few years, and via human manipulation of the complex world of hydrocarbons. The chemical design of modern insecticides is built around carbon, turning the basic matter for life into a creator of death. They use their ability to penetrate “all available portals to enter the body” (38) and, depending on quantities, may remain stored in the body destroying “the very enzymes whose function is to protect the body from harm” (32). They weren’t initially intended for the genocide of insects; they were the products of “chemical warfare”, tested on insects to judge their effects on humans (31).
Both the peregrines and pesticides often remain invisible to the naked eye apart from the dead or dying birds they leave behind. But while the birds that the peregrines killed always return, the same cannot be said for the indiscriminate attacks of pesticides. In The Peregrine the only time we directly see the pesticides work their invisible potency on Baker’s prize birds is in the Cotswolds, away from Baker’s Essex home. On the chalk cliffs he finds nests but with no eggs or young, whose inhabitants are “sterile” and have “no meaning” (97). He notes a poison that burns within them, making their life a “lonely death” (97). The pre-natal murderous tendencies of the poisons arise in Silent Spring as well. Carson discusses Charles Broley, who studied the nests of bald eagles which, despite their place as the symbol of America, were in dangerous decline. Scouring a stretch of the American west coast he found shocking declines, with 80 percent of nests failing to produce young. In this case the effects were due to poison entering the embryo of the egg thus producing stillborn hatchlings or ones with a “death warrant” (116). For Baker’s peregrines a serious problem was eggshell thinning causing breakage; through extensive study Derek Ratcliffe deduced new organochlorine insecticides, specifically DDT, to be the cause. 8 By 1969 this was “conclusively” revealed to be through disruption of “hormones involved in the production of calcium for eggshells” (Jameson, 54). This curse of sterility is what causes Baker to lament: “They were the last of their race” (97).
Baker was immensely pessimistic about the future of the peregrine, there is even a sense that he did not believe it had a place in the present of 1967; once even saying “Now it [the peregrine] has gone” (11). While the peregrines often seem to be the only healthy birds in the text, especially in a bitterly cold winter of “feeble and dying” birds (108), its numbers were actually tumbling and crashing along with the other birds inhabiting the Essex countryside. Just like the tremendously powerful stoops used to catch their prey, the fall in numbers seemed out of control. In Baker’s text the birds, both predator and prey, merge in the act of the stoop, as two birds fall together and silhouettes merge into “one dark bird”. The merger foreshadows how this meal could lead to the peregrine’s death as Carson describes: “One of the most sinister features of [pesticides]… is the way they are passed on from one organism to another through all the links of the food chain” (37).
The merger also shows how the creatures and landscape are fading together. The Peregrine is an elegy to all the aspects of his home county he thought to be becoming lost, not only the birds. The transitory nature of everything is encapsulated by gulls with sun shining on them appearing “almost transparent, ethereal with the glowing and holy illumination that hallowed out their slender bones” (109).
While this description implies a delicate passing it is the passion of fiery imagery that primarily permeates these creatures with the stain of inevitable destruction. The predators are “Evanescent as flame” with an elemental power, stressed through the use of fire to relate to their stoops: “a heart in flame”, “the fiery maelstrom” (112). These are images of passion and violence, as well as bringing an element of chaos. However, the inevitable conclusion of a flame is it being extinguished and this too is emphasised in the language of the text, when the hawk “flared out” (119).
Not just the birds burn; in a surreal scene Baker depicts the land on fire and the elements clashing, like a turbulence of the land where “water and fire were rejoicing together” (41). The spraying of chemicals was like a flame over the landscapes across the Atlantic. In Baker’s diaries it is quiet but threatening, “what looked like a wisp of smoke… thin and misty – moving very fast – not fire”, but Carson describes the resulting destruction vividly, causing places which once lifted the spirit to appear “scorched as by fire, the shrubs brown and brittle” (76). 9
The Peregrine is an elegy to both a disappearing bird and a disappearing world with the loss of one interwoven with that of the other, as shown when Baker watches his peregrine finally depart from the Essex landscape. It leaves behind a place that is now dead, “beyond desolation” (159). Through his writing Baker is preserving his memory of the bird and the landscape, and, perhaps, making a step towards saving it. The act of writing as activism is, however, far more evident in Silent Spring. Although she uses tropes of fairy tale and a certain sense of mythologizing the landscape, as Baker does as well, Carson is forceful and fierce in establishing her standpoint on the environmental destruction of pesticides. She sets up a dichotomy of ‘us and them’, with herself alongside the general public against the chemical industry and those that support them. Her prose is based in facts but she uses them to create a narrative which is engaging and gripping rather than dull and distancing the reader from the issues.
Jonathan Bate has said that scientific language “is itself part of the problem” but poetic language can hold the key to saving ecosystems. 10 Through poetic language readers become better connected to the subjects of the prose; both Carson and Baker achieve this, mingling scientific study and observation with comprehensible and beautiful language. Both use this technique to transmit their passion for an on-going environmental crisis and create texts that continue to be influential over fifty years later.
It is the powerful prose describing the prowess of the peregrines’ attacks that dominants Baker’s text, but it is the lurking threat of pesticides that spurs on his writing. As he concludes at the end of the ‘Beginnings’: “Before it is too late, I have tried to recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in” (12). His elegy is present in Carson’s Silent Spring, a text that achieved its purpose in changing public conceptions and legislation on pesticides. Thanks to these advancements in understanding, peregrines are now thriving across the British Isles. This victory owes some thanks to these writers’ magnificent prose, which demonstrates that it is often necessary to strip away scientific jargon in these kinds of work to make them reach their full public impact, thus influencing not only future nature writers but the environment itself.
1 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 25 Subsequent page references in text
2 Robert Macfarlane, “Introduction” In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), vii
3 J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 12 Subsequent page references in text
4 Lord Shackleton, “Introduction” In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 12
5 John Fanshawe, “Notes on J.A. Baker” In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker (London: Collins, 2011), 18
6 Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T. & A. D. Poyser, 1993), 68 and 335
7 Lord Shackleton, “Introduction” In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 12
8 Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T. & A. D. Poyser, 1993), 330-33
9 J.A. Baker, “The Diaries” In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker (London: Collins, 2011), 422-423
10 Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2001), 230-231
Elizabeth Lee Reynolds is an environmental writer and editor. She recently received a Master’s degree from Essex University in the unique course Wild Writing: Literature and the Environment. She edits for The Missing Slate and has been published in various places, primarily on topics concerning literature and the natural world, including a piece in The Migrant Waders, a book on wading birds published by Dunlin Press. She blogs sporadically at eeleereynolds.wordpress.com.