Book of the Month March 2017 – The Peregrine by J.A. Baker
This extraordinary book is a classic of nature writing, inspirational and revelatory with brilliant, intense, mythic-poetic language – described by Professor John Gray as probably the only example of shamanism in English literature.
Baker walked and cycled the marshes of coastal Essex, a liminal, swirling, serpentine world of fields, marsh, mudflats and water – in the book there are no place names and few humans. For a decade he followed peregrines from October to April, although in the narrative time is condensed, collapsed and folded in on itself: he wrote this as the diary of a single winter.
The Peregrine, first published in 1967 and soon to be issued in a 50th anniversary edition, has troubled many readers, with some ornithologists questioning the veracity of the account. This, however, is not a book about birdwatching. Being in nature is an immersive experience, a sense-engaging process that cannot and should not be reduced merely to checklists and box ticking.
Some of the most vivid writing describes the stoop, as the bird descends into its prey – “she dropped… the sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds. The falcon rose and fell like a black billhook in splinters of white wood.” Or, in part of another lyrical passage, “He curved over in splendid parabola, dived down through the cumulus of pigeons. One bird fell back, gashed dead, astonished, like a man falling out of a tree. The ground came up and crushed it.”
Baker sought to divest himself of the human: “I have always longed to be part of the outward life, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness” and he increasingly identifies with the peregrine: “I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind.” Pronouns shift from the human ‘I’ to ‘we’ – he had altered his perspective; he had dissolved his identity; for a moment he could see the world through the hawk’s eyes – the “peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water”.
Little was known of the author: it was assumed for many years that Baker had a connection with the world of books and literature – it was thought he was a librarian. Recent research revealed this was not the case. John Alec Baker worked for a drinks company in Chelmsford and before that, the local branch of the Automobile Association, although he never learned to drive; he was very much writing the local. He died of cancer in 1987 from the side effects of drugs prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis. He was 61.
The book can be seen as an elegy, a hymn of mourning, for nature destroyed by man as Baker sensed the death of the peregrines and their landscape… he thought the peregrines were doomed as they faced extinction from DDT and other agricultural chemicals.
At the sea-wall on the night before the peregrine migrates, John Baker encounters the bird. He gets close: “Swiftly now he is resigning his savagery to the night that rises round us like dark water. His great eyes look into mine. I know he will not fly now. I climb over the wall and stand before him. And he sleeps.”
By John T (Ranger)