Man might be more tolerable, less fractious and smug, if he had more to fear. I do not mean fear of the intangible, the suffocation of the introvert, but physical fear, cold sweating fear for one’s life, fear of the unseen menacing beast, imminent, bristly, tusked and terrible, ravening for one’s own hot saline blood.
~ J.A. Baker, The Peregrine
If birds made movies, cats would recur in every feature as the constant existential threat to the species. The trouble with being human is that our deadliest predators are either other humans or microscopically tiny creatures like viruses. This insufficiency expresses itself in our science fiction films where the longed-for predator takes the form, say, of a dragon or a well-fanged race of muscular aliens. How many of our personal and social pathologies might be cured if we were reduced to the size of a sparrow?
It’s the rainy season in northern California but we haven’t seen a drop since November. The nights are cold with occasional frost. The days are bright and warmer than they ought to be. This is the season, most years, when we guiltlessly spend our weekends indoors with books and board games. Instead we’re obliged to be outside. Saturday we hiked to a little farm in the hills and along the way found a spotted towhee hunting through the underbrush.
In the first chapter of The Peregrine, J.A. Baker recommends discarding any simple notions that would make small colorful birds mere accessories of the landscape. “Consider the cold-eyed thrush,” he writes, “that springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails.” If we have nothing to fear in him, it’s only an accident of scale.
Our most common thrush is the American robin. One evening last week my daughter and I saw fifty of them in the greenbelt behind the house, that apparently inexhaustible nursery of insects and worms. They marched in alert formation, evenly spaced, eastward through the grass. What must the plodding beetle feel to look up into the bright red eye of the towhee or the robin’s depthless black?