Friday, 27 July 2012

Falcon- a retun to the Roaches

I have just heard that Peregrine Falcon chicks have been successfully reared on the Roaches estate. I have always been in awe at the majesty of this bird. Its plunging dive at prey at speeds of approaching 120 miles an hour must be one of the marvels of nature, killing with the shock of impact as much as with the slash of talons. I have seen the falcon in landscapes as varied as the cliffs of Pembrokeshire and flying over a park in South London.

The bird is the main character in a treasured and rather battered paperback I have of JA Baker’s book Peregrine published in 1967. This wonderfully evocative book is partly an elegy for the hawk and for the landscape in which the bird moved. By the mid 60s the terrible impact of pesticides on the British raptor population was becoming evident. At the start of the 20th century there were over 800 pairs of birds, by the middle of the century this had been halved. The countryside particularly in East Anglia where the book is set was under threat by the remorseless march of agribusiness as hedges, woods and spinnys were being destroyed.

It must have seemed plausible to Baker and others that the peregrines and the landscape would become extinct. "I remember those winter days", he mourns, "those frozen fields ablaze with warring hawks. It is sad that it should be so no longer. The ancient eyries are dying".

The plot of the book runs as follows. One autumn, two pairs of peregrines come to hunt over an area of coast: a mixed landscape of marshland, wood, field, estuary and sea. For a reason, which is never fully explained, the author becomes obsessed with the birds. From October to April, he tracks them, and watches as they wash, fly, kill, eat and roost. It describes them in language so intense and spellbinding and yet also so amok with beauty, that the act of bird watching becomes a liturgy. It is a masterpiece of the literature of place: a book, which sets the imagination aloft, and keeps it there.

The return of the Peregrine Falcon to the local landscape is therefore a moment to be treasured and another sign of the amazing recuperative powers of nature

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Leek Pioneer in the US

On this 4th of July I thought that I would shed light on a local man Thomas Bullock who achieved a significant position in the Church of the Later Day Saints better known as the Mormons. They are of some topicality as the Republican Party nominee for the Presidential election next autumn Mitt Romney is one.
Mormons were one of those faith groups that arose in early America. Its founder a ploughman called Joseph Smith produced a book allegedly following a vision. He set up a community of followers in Nauvoo in Illinois. Smith’s messianic self-belief often led to clashes with neighbours. One of the early supporters of Smith was Thomas Bullock whose ability with the pen led to him becoming Smith’s Secretary.

Thomas Bullock was born in Leek in December 1816. He became an Excise Officer. He married a Leek girl Henrietta Rushton in 1838 and three years later joined the Mormons. In 1843 Bullock and a number of Leek people set sail for America. On arrival in New Orleans they took a steamboat up river arriving in Nauvoo on the 31st May 1843.

In June 1844 the tensions betweenSmith and others exploded into violence. An armed mob stormed a local jail where Smith was held and he was murdered.
Throughout this period Bullock kept a diary, which chronicled events from the assassination of Smith to the decision to set up a community further west. He recorded the hardships of the exodus as many crossed several states to reach Utah.

18th April 1847
"At 5 a.m. the horn should be blown & every man then arise & pray, attend to their cattle, & have every thing done, in order that all may start by seven o'clock. That each extra man should travel on the off side of his team, with his gun loaded over his Shoulder; that each driver shall have his gun so placed that he can lay his hand on it in a moment, that every gun shall have a piece of leather over the nipple, or in the pan of his gun, having their caps, & Powder Flasks ready for a moment's warning".

Bullock made it and followed the Mormon practice of polygamy. He fathered 23 children, 13 of whom survived to adulthood.