Thursday, September 15, 2011

`I Hid in My Own Stillness'

John Alec Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), another book I reread almost annually, when the memory of its inscrutable charm stirs again. In the backyard I’ve found evidence of hawk strikes, explosions of feathers on the brown grass. On Tuesday, they were blue, gray, black and white – the remains of a blue jay. I hear them daily, but I haven’t seen or heard a hawk since returning to Houston. On this rereading I noticed how often Baker uses “silent” or “silence” – twenty-two times in 190 pages, by my count, usually in reference to hawks or other birds. Nature is a noisy place, but Baker writes:

“I waited at the bridge. Birds were silent, and there was no wind. The sun shone in mist, like a burning moon [an effect I’ve often noticed, but Baker wrote it down]. I hid in my own stillness.”

In six words, that final sentence distills the book. Baker is often moving across the fields of Essex, following peregrines, yet remains still and silent, almost disappearing from his first-person narrative. For these reasons his voice sometimes reminds me of Beckett’s voices. Baker again:

“A hoarse bellowing shriek drew out to a sharp edge, and bristled away to silence. But not the silence that was there before.”

Here’s a five-sentence lesson in how to craft prose and how to simulate the way another species perceives the world:

“The white fields were littered with black rocks of birds; with the bulky outline of mallard, moorhen, and partridge; with the narrower shapes of woodcock and pigeon; with the small spots and streaks of blackbirds, thrushes, finches, and larks. There is no concealment. It is easy now for hawks. Their eyes see maps of black and white, like a crackle of silent film. The moving black is prey.”

I try to be quiet in the woods, hoping to disappear and observe, but only once can I remember being involuntarily struck into muteness. Twenty years ago I was walking across a field in a nature preserve in upstate New York, when I came to a road. To my left, weaving along the pavement, was a fat raccoon. His movements were spastic. He would stop, sit upright, shake his head and grasp the air with his forepaws. He made a catlike growl, more childish-sounding than threatening.

As a kid I’d seen a raccoon drop from a tree onto a dog’s back and tear into it. I knew this animal was rabid but for seconds I froze, even as it ran toward me. My mouth was dry and I couldn’t have yelled even if anyone had been close enough to hear. Finally, I trotted to the ranger’s station and reported the raccoon to a friend who worked there as a naturalist. He fetched his .22 from the gun rack and left to deal with the sick animal.

Years later, reading Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, I came upon a passage that described my experience with the raccoon, though Browne was writing “Of the Wolf”:

“The ground or occasional original hereof, was probably the amazement and sudden silence the unexpected appearance of Wolves do often put upon Travellers; not by a supposed vapour, or venomous emanation, but a vehement fear which naturally produceth obmutescence; and sometimes irrecoverable silence.”

“Obmutescence,” from the Latin obmutescere, “to become dumb or mute,” one of the hundreds of Browne coinages. It’s the first citation (1646) given in the Oxford English Dictionary, but I also like the fourth, from O. Henry’s “Heart of the West” (1904): “I was manna in the desert of Jud's obmutescence.”

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