My friend Rob recently gave me this beautiful wondrous book because he loved it. I loved it too and gave it to GD Tom. It isn’t new; it appeared in 1967, written by a modest, private man who lived all his life in a small rural town in Essex, UK. It won the Duff-Cooper prize, the pre-eminent literary prize of the time and has been cited as one of the most important books in the twentieth century on nature writing. But have you heard of it? I hadn’t. For many years it was out of print but Baker’s writing is now associated with the resurgence of literature on nature and landscape by writers such as Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, Underland and more) who writes about Baker so passionately and lovingly and who played a large part in his rediscovery. The Harper-Collins 50th anniversary edition of The Peregrine (2017) has a wonderful Afterword by Robert Macfarlane.
Here then is the bones of The Peregrine for you: For about a decade from 1954 to 1964, a myopic and arthritic office worker called John Alec Baker tracked the peregrine falcons (large powerful birds of prey) that hunted over the narrow geographical area marked by the flat marshes of the coast and landscape of his county.
He pursued them on bicycle and on foot, watching through binoculars as they bathed, flew, stooped, killed and roosted. He learned to predict their locations with an intelligence that began as logic and ended as instinct, and in a relationship that began as fascination and ended as obsession……After a day in the field, he would retreat to a spare room of his Chelmsford terrace house, and write up the details in journals that together run to more than 1600 manuscript pages…. The journals were coal to ‘The Peregrine’s diamond: crushed, they became the book. He collapsed ten years into a single ‘season of hawk-hunting’.
(From The Afterword to The Peregrine by Robert Macfarlane.
The reason Baker himself gives in the book for being driven to take on his mission is that, ‘Before it is too late, I have tried to….convey the wonder of….a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa.’ And he cared hugely that the peregrine had endured a catastrophic decline in the second half of the twentieth century, mainly because of organochloride based agrochemicals, and he wanted everyone to care that much.
I started reading the small book at my usual fast pace but soon realised I was going to need to go back and start again because the tale and the style demanded, in the best possible way, concentration and time. I started to underline, as I do, words and phrases which struck me with their beauty and/or force. These at first were sparse but then almost every page became full of them; often sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. Underlining is a way of rejoicing in the pleasure, telling someone who isn’t there how much you are loving this reading.
The book has two short introductory chapters, Beginnings and Peregrines and the rest is The Hunting Life (the ‘season of hawk-hunting’), divided into days from October 1 to April 4. There was a calming, meditative impact as I read which also slowed me down – in a lovely way. I felt part of all that Baker writes about, small and huge. It was a physical and sensual feeling– I’m sure my heartbeat, as well as my mind, slowed down and I smiled and laughed at times and read aloud for the pleasure of hearing the cadences and rhythms of the language. Day to day life disappeared for a while.
What makes it so wondrous? Is it the language? Descriptions of nature? The peregrines themselves? J.A. Baker’s passion?
It is all that. But for me, it’s the words, the language, I love most. I kept being reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins, my favourite poet who I like to read aloud. I thought, as I read, that J.A Baker must know and love him too. Could two people serendipitously use words and invent words and defy the rules of language to take one’s breath away in such a similar way without knowing each other? Later I discovered that, yes, Hopkins was in Baker’s bookshelves. Reading The Peregrine is like reading poetry –it’s sheer pleasure and you can’t hurry anywhere. At the same time tho, it is gripping like a thriller. I wanted to read just one more day, one more day, to find out what happens next even tho it’s always a version of the same. It’s never boring. It’s a bloodbath. The relentless killing (by the animals) is brutal but simply about survival, not mindless or cruel so it isn’t shocking. The killing by men is. I was also reminded of Ted Hughes- his poems which highlight the ferocity and sheer bitter endurance of nature. His language is emotive and strong but also subtle and sensitive like Baker’s. I went back to listen to Hughes on Youtube reading his poem Crow. I wish Gerard Manley Hopkins could be heard on Youtube reading The Windhover or Binsey Poplars; or J.A.Baker reading from The Peregrine!
The language is more than just pleasure in and of itself tho, it’s a pathway into the world of wonder – of nature and the birds - and that makes up my love of the book too. I was hooked via invitation to my mind and then all of me was taken over. Part of me wanted to go back to the beginning and systematically make a list of all the birds (and trees..) Baker mentions and look them up and learn about them all. Another part just gave in and let the words create pictures and characteristics which slowly became familiar but not in a way that requires systematization. The peregrine is absolutely the hero/heroine. My breath caught every time J.A.Baker describes (and I pictured) it coasting, gliding, hovering, watching, bathing, soaring, stooping, killing, devouring…. Its powerfulness and muscularity and perfection! He uses every possible adjective to describe the bird and invents more to convey his wonder and admiration, and love. The bird’s whole existence is simple and pure and just… what it is, but reading about it is complex and overwhelming because you understand that the real point of our everything too, is just to keep existing. But there is fun as well and extreme sensuousness in the existing- for the creatures that we read about and for us as we read. The bravery of other birds who chase the hawks! And the awfulness of the hunters and their beagles! J.A.Baker sometimes anthropomorphises but not often and it always feels ok. I think he does the opposite too, even more subtly – pointing out how like the birds we are. From his descriptions of the days’ work of the hawks it seems that they miss their targets much more often than they hit. That’s interesting. Do they indulge in bit of desultory action to fill in a boring afternoon? I like the rare times when Baker comes face to face, eye to eye, with a bird, especially a peregrine.
I needed to look up lots of words in the dictionary. I enjoyed that extra slowing down of my reading. Often the word was ‘archaic’ and I liked that. I love the short staccato sentences without verbs, many of them following one after the other. The writing is so rhythmical; Baker makes nouns and adjectives into verbs and vice versa. He invents words and adds others together with hyphens… like Gerard Manley Hopkins does. He is a prince of the use of words and language. You want to read it aloud.
There are marine themes; colour is so important and manifold; words are repeated often- because the same things happen in the same places, day after day. Lots of bits made me smile or laugh - with pleasure, surprise, happiness. There are contradictions- such vastness is conveyed but we know that we are in a confined area; timelessness is laid out in days. There is such stark comparison between the world he and the birds traverse and ours. He says, ‘I hear a dead leaf loosen’. Sometimes the writing is a bit self-conscious but in a nice way. You couldn’t create such beauty and give such pleasure without the trying sometimes being a little transparent. You see the man behind it and like him. It’s a nice surprise when you occasionally come across him too, cycling, looking through his binoculars, tramping through the mud and rain, waiting and waiting and looking. Catching his breath too, over and over again. Hiding in his own stillness. He puts himself in more towards the latter part of the book, and lectures more often too, as the book progresses. He has points to make all right. About us and our hideousness.
As you read on it becomes much more sombre (while never losing the exultation). Those points Baker has to make become clearer and stronger and his rage and distress are more evident. Had he been consciously beguiling us towards this, a polemic about man’s wicked destruction of natural habitat? It’s so modern and apt. His love for, and attachment to, the birds- the peregrine- and the environment is much more evident. He tells us more about his human activities – once he even describes looking out of the window of his house, the only time he isn’t in the habitat he immerses us in. But at the same time he almost becomes more bird than man. It seems as if the shame he feels about man is so unbearable that he no longer wants to be one
I love him, J.A.Baker, for doing the strange thing he was compelled to do and for the pleasure and the passion he induces with just (hardly ‘just’ - beautiful, extraordinary, old and invented, wonderful…) words. Knowing that he was seriously myopic and suffered terribly from arthritis (medication for which led to his death at the age of 61) makes me love him more. He struggled and suffered to give us The Peregrine but you’d not know that from reading it.
And if, like me, after reading The Peregrine you want to know as much as there is to know about its mysterious author and his largely unreported life, you will want to read My House of Sky: The Life and Work of A.J. Baker by Hetty Saunders. This is full of wonderful photos and snippets about an, on the surface, ordinary life. Robert Macfarlane has written in this book too, this time a brief Foreword. He points out that the method of the biographer echoes Baker’s own pursuit of the peregrines – deduction when confronted with mystery. He says:
And I wonder: who was the man who could write a work of such visionary power and such suppressed violence? What does it cost a person to compress a book of this intense energy?
…..Hetty has ‘looked into the wood’ of Baker’s world, and lit up his ‘lair of shadows’ to just the extent that it needs illuminating.
There is more, much more I could tell you about the book and the man. For example about the skeptics who claim that Baker made up all or most of contents of The Peregrine or that he was mixing up his birds, mistaking kestrels for peregrines. And about his patient and understanding wife, Doreen. But I won’t. I’ll leave you the task of discovering it all for yourself.