This morning while walking the dog in late September sun, I thought back to one of the first cross country meets of the season for St. Charles in 1973. Our team was training well, and we knew that there were good things to come. Yet a tremendous obstacle stood in our way. We were about to face a Naperville Central cross country program that had won more than sixty dual meets in a row.
Not having spent the first two years of my cross country career in the Upstate Eight Conference, I was not aware of the Naperville Central reputation. All I knew is that I was performing as our top runner in practice, and needed to get ready to face whatever came our way.
There was a gap in time between the end of school that day and the scheduled time for the meet. I took the book I was reading to the top of the bleachers in the football stadium and sat in the sun. That book was titled The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. I didn’t know it at the time, but it is considered one of the all-time greatest naturalist books ever written.
What I did know is that it inspired me. As a sixteen-year-old kid I was already deep into birding. My lifelist had grown to more than two-hundred species. My brothers and I would often visit forest preserves to find new birds. But I had not yet seen a peregrine falcon.
That’s because peregrines were rare and endangered in the early 1970s. So were bald eagles, ospreys, and other birds at the top of the food chain. All had their populations decimated by the presence of DDT in the environment, causing eggshells to thin and bird populations to drop as a result.
I’d found The Peregrine on a bookshelf in the high school library. I believe my biology teacher and birding friend Bob Horlock had recommended it to me. That copy of the book was simply bound with a plain black cover and the title embossed in gold on the front.
I carried the book around with me for days, poring through its tales about tracking peregrine falcons along the coast of England. The romance of that immersion entranced me. I could feel the cool breeze off the ocean. Sense the flow of bird flocks in the wind. Smell the scents of heather and surf. And thrill to the idea of a peregrine in full stoop striking down a fleeing gull.
Already I had a deep interest in writing as well. That’s what made the book so compelling. Few writers in history have achieved such glorious economy of words, yet rich in meaning. J.A. Baker was a master at that.
“Crows flew up again to chase the hawk away, and the three birds drifted east. Dry feathered and more buoyant now, the tiercel did not beat his wings, but simply soared in the abundant warmth of air. He dodged easily the sudden rushes of the crows, and swooped at them with waggling snipey wings. One crow planed back to earth, but the other plodded on, beating heavily round, a hundred feet below the hawk. When both were very small and high above the wooded hill, the hawk slowed down to let the crow catch up. They dashed at each other, tangling and flinging away, swooping up to regain the height they lost. rising and fighting, they circled out of sight. Long aferwards the crow came floating back, but the hawk had gone. Half-way to the estuary I found him again, circling among thousands of starlings. They ebbed and flowed about him, bending and flexing sinuously in the sky, like the black funnel of a whirlwind. They carried the tormented hawk towards the coast, till all were suddenly scorched from sight in the horizon’s gold corona.”
So immersed was I in reading The Peregrine that a teammate had to find me atop the bleachers and call me to the task. “C’mon, Cud. It’s time for the meet.”
I walked down the bleachers in the pleasant fog of literary disassociation. In the locker room I pulled on the St. Charles uniform and shoes, then went out to jog and warm up. Images of peregrines were still floating around in my head. My mind and body were relaxed even to the point in time when we pulled on our spikes and stepped to the line. The gun rang out and I swept in with the top two Naperville runners Bob Warner and Rick Hodapp. We ran the course together and I felt in complete and absolute control the entire way. No fear entered my head. It felt like one of those good dreams when you actually can run and nothing is holding you back.
I don’t recall whether I won or took second place that day. It didn’t matter because my teammates also ran astoundingly well. We won the race against Naperville Central, snapping their dual meet streak and proving to ourselves that we were legitimate in some way.
We cooled down with an excited jog after the race. Only then did my head seem to come out of its peregrine-induced state. We joked and laughed among us, waved to our cheerleaders, and thrilled to the idea that we had support from a great group of young women who seemed to understand that this was a team with a purpose.
That night I lay in bed reading yet another chapter of The Peregrine. The language drew me in: “East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflection of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark-spired forest, but when I move towards them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me towards them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.”
I fell asleep with peregrine dreams in my head.
Running that day was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. I wish that I’d learned to live all of life that way, without fear, anxiety, and full of purpose released. Or perhaps it is best that we have these experiences that remain unique and transcendent, as sudden and free as a peregrine falcon floating across the sky.