A Gyrfalcon for a King

by Colin Williams

“An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, and a Saker for a Knight; a Merlin for a lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, and a Kestrel for a Knave”

I didn’t see her until she was upon me.

I was sitting – tired and contemplative – deep down beneath a small outcrop of volcanic rock amongst the boulders sloping to a shingle beach into the sea. In the shadow of the rocks at the end of the jaws of the cove I could see the clarity of the low arctic waters and a flurry of terns rolled and dipped along the shoreline. The sea was oil-still in the bright white light peculiar to the northern landscapes. Nearby, the carcass of a juvenile killer whale gave the air a taste and in the bay the head of a grey seal watched the shore as if keeping an eye on the sleeping but still lethal orca, it’s dorsal fin clearly visible as it lay on the beach. Auks were whirring close over the surface of the water and behind me lay the silent hulk of the volcano, capped in snow and ringed in cloud.

And then, from my left, just a few metres away, she came; appearing at the edge of the small cliff where the peaty turf hung in ribbons over the rock. She was not alone. Behind her trailed a ragged streamer of mobbing, desperate birds; wheatear, oystercatcher and a purple sandpiper, at least five of them testing their will and speed against the gyrfalcon. She passed by quickly and touchably close, only just over my head and over the opposing cliff bank before disappearing across the volcanic grassland pitted with sink holes and caves. Electrified by her sudden appearance I had risen to my feet almost before she had passed. In the same instant, in response to my movement the seal had exploded into the water. I rose but was not able to see her, her speed had already taken her behind some upstanding rocks.

Scrambling up the beach to find a place with a better view I pulled myself up using tussocks of grass and looked in the direction she had passed but she was already gone. But looking again, I knew she was there. All I could see was a sign of her presence, a ripple of clamour in the sky where she had passed. She had scythed over the surface of the ground putting waders and other birds up and now, shedding all pretenders, all that was left was a pair of merlin climbing and stooping down to a spot that was invisible to me. She was there.

I walked over the rough ground until I could see her and, thinking that my sudden and intermittent appearances over the tussocks and mounds would scare her, I sat and watched from a distance. But soon I pressed on to get closer, almost crawling at some points. In truth, she knew I was there. She waited for me it seemed and I was a pilgrim, willing to prostrate myself and drag myself over the difficult and sharp terrain to meet her eye.

Soon I was metres from her. She was royally impervious to the screeching of the merlins at the very top of a tall, grass covered stone. The merlins shyed away from my presence long before the falcon who looked at me with cool and quick precision. At that moment the gyrfalcon was absolutely in its landscape, full of tundric beauty; at that moment I was in a place that was more than just a spot on the map of a remote peninsular; at that moment my powers of detached human observation of weather, plumage and botany deserted me. All were replaced, for that short time revolving around the pinnacle created by the bird on its rock. It was the very definition of its place. It was all of nature, a thing of fierce and independent beauty.

The heavy minutes turned before she dropped away, beating her wings powerfully in slow motion. The feeling of muscular and taut control was pervasive, a visceral and tangible presence. She circled around to my right before tacking back towards me and then, meeting the light landward breeze drew herself close over the ground and disappeared behind the cliffs.

While those moments lasted I had briefly – gloriously – been un-human, nothing more than another living thing returned to its proper place in the ecologies of my own species’ history; I was just another animal. Reckless, then, the human who attempts to tame the experience. For all the imagery and words I could lay at its feet I had, ultimately, knelt before the gyrfalcon empty-handed, helpless. The thousand-channel thrill of the encounter passed, I was lying where she’d left me, earth-bound and dejected. Looking up at a white sky, the high and lonely bubble of passing whimbrel was the only sound.

Colin Williams is a writer exploring our relationship with the landscape and its wildlife. His work has been praised as having ‘a deeply personal precision’ and his book Shadows in the Hay has been described as ‘a beautifully precise…elegant homage to the landscapes and places that shape us’ and ‘evocative and unexpected’.