One morning, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I did my usual thing of wandering through the fields near our house. We lived in the Lincolnshire Fens at that time, vast and flat, a landscape of arable farmland, dykes and ditches and canals, reedbeds, marshes, will-o’-the-wisps, prehistoric burial mounds, Roman roads that run straight to the horizon and beyond.
That morning I went through the hay meadow and the ancient orchard beyond it, then across more fields to a reed-edged waterway that I loved for its remoteness and timelessness, its population of noisy little birds, and the gnarly oak that grew beside it. I climbed into the oak’s lower boughs, a shady hiding place to wait and watch for whatever wildlife might emerge in my wake.
And then I noticed something else in the tree: a dead falcon, its long mews jesses caught around a small branch. Falconers do not fly birds with mews jesses so it must have escaped captivity somehow, flown off with the long leather straps streaming behind it. I don’t know what sort of falcon it was – perhaps a Peregrine, perhaps a Lanner Falcon. It was not yet maggoty and rotten, had probably not been dead more than a day or so. It was a sad end, entangled in this remote spot, unable to drink or feed, perhaps thrashing itself to death in its frenzied efforts to escape.
Carefully I untangled the falcon, cradled it in the crook of my arm, climbed down. I undid the jesses, slipped the loops down over its talons. It was free. Then – gently, reverently – I laid it at the foot of the tree, to sink slowly away into worm and earth, to loose its feathers into the winds.
Finding this dead falcon was one of those great events of childhood that reverberate through the rest of your life, their meanings elusive yet powerful, their memory calling to you at odd moments.
It is because of this event that if I find some small dead thing on a path, I will lay it gently to one side and whisper some soft incantation to it. It is because of this event that I will apologize to trees if, pushing through them, I snap twigs. It’s not that I think the universe cares about these small lives or minor damages, much less about my murmured sorrow or contrition. It is simply what it is: a small act of respect, of mindfulness, and through such small acts I remind myself to tread softly upon the Earth, to notice, to care.
And it is because of this event that today I visited a falconry centre and spent the morning doing an introduction to falconry, learning about and handling hawk and eagle, vulture and owl.