© Copyright 2020 by Alex Jasinski
This story recounts my encounter with a peregrine falcon at the University of York in October of 2009, during my freshman year. It was one of those brief but very memorable moments that stayed with me ever since.Wild animals in York are hard to find. Sure, some jokester could point to a bar street on a Friday night and snicker but the fact of the matter is that it’s the thoroughly middle-class, domesticated nature of the city that lures in plenty of people also makes most animals eschew it. The rare exceptions form vicious gangs: nothing evokes more fear than a gaggle of geese trotting towards you with fierce cackling. Late night walks through the university campus required a detour whenever a colonnade of vigilant geese was noticed hissing in the dark or else avian wrath would be unleashed promptly and mercilessly. But even the geese, not to mention swans and moorhens found in the lake area, were clearly inhabitants of this old city and were far from being wild, merely ill-tempered at times. They had become a part of York’s fabric, just like occasional squirrels scampering across a lawn or seagulls beckoning at the lords of the sea from their residential landfill. They were to be expected and any encounter with them would elicit at most a cheerful nod of familiarity. They felt safe, even when they weren’t.
How much different then was my encounter with ‘wild life’ that one particular autumn afternoon eleven years ago. I was showing around a friend who came for a visit from another town and what better way to get to know York –its narrow snickelways, imposing Minster, encircling walls and restless river Ouse – than by travelling on foot? The stroll went without any interruptions for at least a couple of hours before reached the King’s Manor, a medieval Grade 1 building and the former seat for the Council of the North, which is currently hosting the department of Archaeology and boasting an incongruous brutalist staircase that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the site. The unfortunate staircase aside, King’s Manor remains not only a vital historical monument but also a place dear to my heart. It had a library section on old archaeology books and grey literature reports, spacious seminar rooms and cellars filled with finds and fish bones. It lived and breathed history. The whole building complex comprises of two interconnected courtyards that used to form an infirmary and an Abbot’s lodgings and it was in the second, larger courtyard that we were confronted with an unusual scene.
across cut grass was a pigeon – or rather what was left of it.
Its head lay a good couple feet away from the rest of its battered
body. The culprit behind the act wasn’t exactly hiding: a
peregrine falcon was clearly too busy pecking and plucking out
feathers to notice us. The beak worked through meat, tearing at the
tatters. There was no rage, no excuses made, just a click after click
as the bird picked the bones clean and blades of grass soaking up
scarlet. Nature red in tooth and claw seemingly from ages long ago.
Bits of scattered down fluttered in the air like dandelion tufts. We
never saw the hunt, the falcon’s sudden descent followed by a
brief, doomed struggle that must have led to all of this. We only saw
the violent aftermath. I recall standing there petrified, unsure of
what to do or what to make of that scene. Click. Click. The falcon’s
head shoot up and it cast a quick glance our way and then returned to
its meal as if nothing happened. No misgivings, no hesitation.
Nothing. Like through a haze I recall one of us declaring, with a
nervous laugh, that it’s like National Geographic live. We
initially tried to make light of what we had witnessed. Then we fell
into bouts of silence before finally heading our separate ways. I
returned to my room, sat down and began writing a poem as a way of
dealing with this event, transforming the transfixing image of a poor
pigeon into an euphemistic cabinet of curiosities. Looking back at
it, I have come to realise that metaphors don’t really serve
their purpose in cases like this. Just like it had disregarded the
two of us on the grounds of a medieval abode, the falcon refused to
be simply caged in words and images. By pouring words onto a page I
might have assuaged myself, but it brought no transformation nor
improved my comprehension. Click, click, the mental cage opens and
off flies the bird of prey.
Years passed. I moved out of York, travelled across parts of China, then lived in Belgium and, most recently, Poland. Yet somehow both the image of that dismembered pigeon and the oblivious persistence of the falcon that accompanied it stuck with me. Of course, it did not take long to internalise the whole event at some level: birds of prey kill other animals, there is no doubt about it and that fact should not surprise me. My naivety didn’t result from lack of knowledge, rather it stemmed from the lack of direct confrontation. It is all too easy to trivialise violence, to refuse to connect the dots in one’s mind. A cat returning home with a dead mouse can be said to have gone on an adventure. A fox sneaking into a chicken coop is about to make a lot of noise. This kind of understatement, I thought to myself, is fine. It’s natural. It’s what we do. One doesn’t have to turn a blind eye to a situation. It’s enough if one simply squints.
There and then I didn’t have that option. That afternoon at King’s Manor everything was laid bare. More so, it was no frozen still or a captured snapshot. No, it was a situation that kept going, a perpetual conflict. Any ambiguity and distance had been removed. It was just us and the falcon that was perfectly suited to what had to be done. As much my mind might have rebelled against it, the pigeon was following the example of many other nameless pigeons before and after, being turned– feather after feather, click by click - into a falcon’s meal. I have noticed peregrines here and there ever since. Mostly they would be perched proud among bronzed stumps of harvested fields or roosting atop a tree or a fence post. Always vigilant, always composed. Poised in ways that would never call into question their status as apex predators, yet concealing their murderous tendencies. Regal. They looked so radically different from their King Manor’s counterpart, which had no qualms about getting its claws and beak dirty. However their piercing, unfazed eyes were a dead giveaway with regards to their ruthless nature: the only thing truly safe was the wilderness inside them.
Jasinski was born in Wroclaw, Poland but bred in Prague, Czech
Republic and educated in the mysteries of zooarchaeology at the
University of York, UK where he specialized in ants and termites.
Afterwards, he taught English in Nanjing for three years and has
recently graduated from KU Leuven in Brussels. He mostly writes
poetry and fiction in Polish and English and is currently based in
Author in front of King's Manor, 23 December, 2011.