[Book Review] The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker

The Peregrine is the account of a man’s obsession with a bird. With only one other book to his name, J.A. Baker (1926 – 1986) is a somewhat mysterious figure. Recent investigation into his life revealed only that he lived near Chelmsford, in Essex. Although he worked for the local Automobile Association, he was unable to drive and rarely went further than his bicycle could take him. What is clear is that he was a keen bird-watcher, driven by twin desires: to witness the beauty of peregrines on the hunt and to escape from the human world. In his book, he reveals nothing about himself. As a narrator and literary character, he is almost devoid of personality. This and the absence of other human figures, except as distant, threatening entities, allows the animal to take center-stage.

The book recounts the author’s long days spent outdoors seeking out peregrines. His diary begins after a short introduction and a mostly factual second chapter about their habits and characteristics. The lack of a real plot other than the passage of the seasons, entry after entry, meant I read the book like I would a collection of poems: rarely more than a few pages at a time, picking it up at will, re-reading those passages that stood out to me often and with pleasure. That is because Baker’s writing is something to be jealous of. Although elaborate and poetic, it seems unforced. More than that, he succeeds in making a tedious and repetitive activity both alive and exciting. He endlessly reinvents his prose to recount almost identical events, changes in weather, the birds’ soaring majesty and lethal dives, in each time more inventive and beautiful ways. The writing is intense, heavily charged with metaphor. It often waxes lyrical, as in this description of a peregrine stooping at high speed: “He had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames. He became smaller and darker, diving down from the sun. The partridge in the snow beneath looked up at the black heart dilating down upon him, and heard a hiss of wings rising to a roar. In ten seconds the hawk was down, and the whole splendid fabric, the arched reredos and immense fan-vaulting of his flight, was consumed and lost in the fiery maelstrom of the sky”.

Conservationists and scientists have cast doubt on the truth of Baker’s descriptions. They criticize many of his claims as ludicrous, reasoning that his obsession led him to embellish reality. They argue that he could not possibly have so frequently sighted peregrines in his small corner of England. They may not be so far off the mark. Yet it is precisely this lyrical excess that makes The Peregrine so fascinating. Baker is conscious of his own extravagance. It is the deliberate application of a personal philosophy, the reflection of another form or layer of truth. Early on, he writes: “Everything I describe took place while I was watching it, but I do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behavior of the watcher are also facts, and they must be truthfully recorded”. Setting aside the reliability of Baker’s description, I could only be impressed by the uniqueness of purpose, the passion and conviction behind his writing. He never lowers the pitch, condensing what must be a decade of bird-watching into a single, relentlessly successful season. There’s a shamanistic side to him as he tracks the peregrines almost daily without fail. At times he seems as if in a trance or state of religious ecstasy, cycling through the countryside all senses awakened. In a passage that indelibly marked Werner Herzog, whose enthusiasm for the book brought me to read it, he begins acting like a hawk. Crouching over a kill, “as in some primitive ritual”, he describes the freshly butchered bird with feral excitement, as if he’d become a hungry predator himself. So intense is his identification with the peregrine that his narration slides into the plural: “We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life”. It’s easy to understand Herzog’s admiration for the book, as it so closely mirrors his concept of ‘ecstatic truth’.

At the time when the book was written, British peregrines were suffering from illegal poaching and pesticide use, especially the lethal DDT which dangerously accumulated up the food chain. It caused many to “die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals”. Their population dropped to historic lows. In this context, The Peregrine was a literary effort to preserve the memory of the peregrine, “to recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in, a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa”. The banning of organochlorine pesticides and the peregrine’s registration as a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 helped reverse this sad trend, and British populations have since recovered. The 19 sub-species of falco peregrinus are present on all continents. Yet, even though there is less concern to be had for their survival, Baker’s book remains as a manifesto for their continued protection. Good literature can allow its readers to gain insight into the human mind, but it very rarely helps them penetrate the consciousness of animals. That is exactly what The Peregrine does, and why it stands out as a singular piece of nature writing. Baker is more shaman than writer, our way in to the hawk’s mind.

Baker, J.A. (1967) The Peregrine, New York Review of Book, New York, ISBN 978-1-59017-133-2. Introduced by Robert MacFarlane.

Piece originally published on deciduous.in (now inactive) on March 14th 2015.