J. A. Baker’s immersion in the life of the peregrines of East Anglia documents his attempt to efface the human. He writes that he has “always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence”



J. A. Baker, The Peregrine, NYRB Classics, 2004.




From fall to spring, J.A. Baker set out to track the daily comings and goings of a pair of peregrine falcons across the flat fen lands of eastern England. He followed the birds obsessively, observing them in the air and on the ground, in pursuit of their prey, making a kill, eating, and at rest, activities he describes with an extraordinary fusion of precision and poetry. And as he continued his mysterious private quest, his sense of human self slowly dissolved, to be replaced with the alien and implacable consciousness of a hawk.
It is this extraordinary metamorphosis, magical and terrifying, that these beautifully written pages record.









"The Peregrine should be known as one of the finest works on nature ever written… His words—precise, lyrical and intensely felt—seem to have been selected as if their author were under huge pressure, both from the depth of his feelings for the bird and the weight of experience he wished to impart…The only sadness about The Peregrine is that its author is no longer with us to be honoured afresh for his achievement."— BBC Wildlife Magazine



"A nature study such as Mr. Baker has presented—not by any means restricted to the peregrine falcon—deserves warm praise for the remarkable perseverance and patience which has gone into its making, and when the observer is a gifted writer, as in the present instance, the result is even more gratifying."— Daniel A. Bannerman



"The Peregrine is one of the most beautifully written, carefully observed and evocative wildlife accounts I have ever read. Mr. Baker’s patience, his discriminating and unsentimental eye, and his passionate deliberations are utterly captivating."— Barry Lopez



"This book goes altogether outside the bird book into something less naïve, into literature, into a kind of universal rapport…"— Geoffrey Grigson



"…one need not know a hawk from a handsaw to take pleasure and profit from the book. It is an account by a curious, complicated man of a curious, complicated phenomenon, that will involve, instruct and excite a reader who can never hope and may never want to share the writer’s experience."— Bil Gilbert



"Mr. Baker is primarily a descriptive writer, and a good one, but his obsession has given him a kind of crazy empathy that lifts his book above mere observation."— The New Yorker


While Sebald’s nature walks are ultimately encounters with human culture, Baker’s immersion in the life of the peregrines of East Anglia documents his attempt to efface the human. Near the beginning of The Peregrine, he writes that he has “always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence.” This is one of the few sentences in which a subjective author appears—the book is a work of tireless outward observation, with an astonishingly inventive and precise prose style. Queneau and Calle walk through city streets, Herzog and Sebald through the countryside, and each is grounded, moving horizontally through a literal or figurative landscape. Baker’s feet may be on the ground, but his gaze is skyward, toward the birds he envies: “We have no element,” he despairs near the end of the book, “nothing sustains us when we fall.” - Lisa Darms

Any writer who takes the English landscape as his subject faces the problem of precedent. Each acre has been written about before. There is, it can seem, nothing original, nothing primary, to find again. An aspic layer of cliche clings and trembles over the terrain.
Very occasionally, though, an author will devise a style so fierce and uncanny that it lifts even this most heavily historied and chronically farmed of countrysides into strangeness again. JA Baker's The Peregrine, first published in 1967, is such a book: a reminder of the wildness with which England still brims.
The Peregrine's plot - if a book so unconventional can be said to possess a plot - runs as follows. One autumn, two pairs of peregrines come to hunt over an area of coastal Essex: a mixed landscape of marshland, wood, field, estuary and sea. For a reason which is never fully explained, Baker becomes obsessed with the birds. From October to April, he tracks them daily, and watches as they wash, fly, kill, eat and roost. "Autumn", as Baker puts it, "begins my season of hawk-hunting, spring ends it, and winter glitters between like the arch of Orion." The book records these months of chase in all their agitated repetitiveness. It describes them in language so intense and incantatory, and yet also so amok with beauty, that the act of bird-watching becomes akin to a shamanic ritual.
As the seasons proceed, Baker's relationship with the birds deepens. He starts by learning to track them. Peregrines can often fly so fast, and at such an altitude, that to the human eye they are invisible from the ground. But Baker discovers that the hawks can be located by the disturbance they create among other birds, in the same way that the position of an invisible plane can be told from its contrail. "Evanescent as flame," he writes on October 7, "peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above. But in the lower air a wake of birds trails back, and rises upward through the white helix of the gulls."
As he refines his tracking skills, so Baker draws closer to the hawks. One November day, he rests his hand on the grass where a peregrine has recently stood, and experiences "a strong feeling of proximity, identification". By December, he has turned fully feral. "The hunter", he writes, has become "the thing he hunts" - human has turned into hawk.
Baker's extraordinary book is an elegy in part for the peregrines, and in part for the landscape through which he and they both moved. By the mid-1960s, the atrocious impact of pesticides upon raptor populations in Britain was becoming apparent. In 1939 there had been 700 peregrine pairs; a 1962 survey showed a decline to half this number, with only 68 pairs appearing to have reared chicks successfully. The Essex countryside was also menaced, as it underwent reckless reshaping for the purposes of agribusiness. Hedges were grubbed up, spinneys and copses bulldozed, old lanes earthed over.

It must have seemed plausible to Baker 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 book stands as requiem for both bird and place - or a sacred charm which might save them both.
One has no choice but to keep reading The Peregrine, even though it is a book in which very little happens, over and over again. Dawn. The man watches, the bird hunts, the bird kills, the bird feeds. Dusk. And so on, through seven months. What Baker understood was that in order to keep the reader reading through the same cycle of events, he had to forge a new language of description. The language which he created was as instinctive, sudden and aerial as the bird to which it was devoted, and one which, like the bird, could startle even as it repeated itself.
Like all extreme stylists, Baker was a metalworker, heating the language until it became pliable, then bending and torquing it into new shapes. Again and again, he surprises us at the level of the sentence, as nouns become verbs and verbs become adjectives: "Five thousand dunlin rained away inland, like a horde of beetles gleamed with golden chitin"; "The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedges"; "Four short-eared owls soothed out of the gorse."
Baker's style is at its most heightened in the set-piece descriptions - each as formal and dynamic as any Imagist poem - of the peregrine's chase and its "stoop"; that "sabring fall from the sky", when the hawk drops into its prey from a height of up to 3,000 ft, killing with the shock of impact as much as with the slash of talons:
"A falcon peregrine, sable on a white shield of sky, circled over from the sea. She slowed, and drifted aimlessly, as though the air above the land was thick and heavy. She dropped. The beaches flared and roared with salvoes of white wings. The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds. The falcon rose and fell, like a black billhook in splinters of white wood."
Throughout The Peregrine, there is an astonishing tensedness to the prose. This is not a faked, effortful tensedness - the prose equivalent of a fat man sucking in his belly for a photograph - but something pure, precise, elemental. When, describing a Cotswold winter, Baker notes that "the air smelt of iron, hard and implacable", we know that he has chosen that verb "smelt" for the way it rings, metallically, off "iron". When he writes that "Morning was hooded and seeled with deep grey cloud and mist", we know that "seeled" is not a misprint for sealed, but a falconer's term, meaning "to stitch up the eyelids of a hawk".
Baker's most remarkable achievement in The Peregrine, to my mind, is the quality of deep strangeness with which he invests the East Anglian landscape. His Essex - 50 miles from London, aggressively farmed, densely peopled - is somehow made as mysterious, elemental, wild and remote as anywhere in the world. Like Ted Hughes, Baker is able to evoke a deep Englishness: to make a long-inhabited landscape seem timeless and mythic. And like TH White and John Masefield, he knows the magical properties of the English winter wood: trees "black and hard", "the bone-white coral of frosted hedges".
One way Baker makes his Essex so alien is by avoiding official place-names. As Rilke says all poets must do, he names his own realm into being. He speaks only of "the South", "the North", "the East" and "the West". He inhabits a cardinal landscape. When he is travelling, he steers himself by landform and feature, instead of proper nouns. He walks "inland", "up the slope of the hill", "along the line of the woods". He also depopulates his countryside. The odd walker is seen, ships move out at sea, a red tractor combs a field. Otherwise, an eerie emptiness prevails. This is of course because he has gone wild, and keeps to the hedges, the trees and the shadows.
Everything contained within The Peregrine - the landscape, the narrator, the birds, the language - behaves in unpredictable ways. Everything is surprised into unforeseen and beautiful expression by the passage of the hawk and the sweep of Baker's hawk-like gaze. It is, unmistakably, a masterpiece of the literature of place: a book which sets the imagination aloft, and keeps it there for months and years afterwards. A new edition of The Peregrine with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane is published by New York Review Books on July 7. - Robert Macfarlane


The Peregrine is a work of genius and, as is so often the case with genius, problematic. JA Baker, who wrote it, spent his life in Chelmsford, Essex, almost unnoticed. Although he ran the local branch of the Automobile Association, he could not drive, so the material for his only two books (both contained in this volume) was collected within bicycling distance of his home.
Baker was interested in all nature, especially birds, but his obsession was the peregrine. He tracked it down the years, in woods and fields and along the Essex estuaries. He observed it and identified with it most intently and intensely. The resulting book, which was first published in 1967, declaredly renders his decade of observation as the account of one season, from October to April. This adds to the intensity. The 619 carcasses of kills by peregrines which he reports make one feel as if his Essex must have been the raptors' equivalent of Inspector Morse's Oxford, littered with corpses.
As Mark Cocker points out in his introduction, many peregrine experts question whether Baker could really have seen as many as he says in an area where they were infrequent and (as Baker himself laments) declining because of pesticides. Some deny that peregrines can ever hover, as he asserts, and suggest that he sometimes mistook a kestrel for a peregrine. No one else has seen peregrines dive to earth to catch worms, but Baker says he did.
Hardly anyone knew Baker, who died, aged 61, in 1987. In his diaries (also reprinted in part here), he excised most of what he had recorded about peregrines. It is mysterious. Perhaps he exaggerated what he encountered.
Travellers, anglers, archaeologists and many other passionate experts who make a solitary activity their life's work can come to place too much faith in their own version of truth. But this doubt should not put anyone off this book. For what is certain is that The Peregrine is the most precise and poetic account of a bird – possibly of any non-human creature - ever written in English prose.
Baker has at least two skills which help achieve this. One is his gift for metaphor and simile. Here are two consecutive sentences: "There is something very cold about a thrush, endlessly listening and stabbing through the arras of grass, the fixed eye blind to what it does. A cock blackbird, yellow-billed, stared with bulging crocus eye, like a small mad puritan with a banana in his mouth." Such writing is incredibly bold, self-consciously so, and yet, when you test it in your mind, you realise how weirdly just it is.
The other skill is Baker's capacity to mingle the elements and the senses. He notices four short-eared owls "hushing the air" in flight. He describes how drakes "dazzled up the sky". He studies how a hawk looks out for its prey: "Movement is like colour to a hawk; it flares upon the eye like crimson flame." Baker stretches language to its limits to convey that fascinating thing about the life of the wild – its vast difference from our own.
One problem with nature-writing can be that the reader flags. "This is fine stuff," he thinks, "but why should I go on? Where is it leading?" He reads a page or two, and puts it aside. You want to do the same with Baker, not because it is aimless and underpowered, but for the opposite reason. The emotion and focus of the writing are so strong that you need to rest. The attention to the one object is so relentless (which is why his other book, The Idle Hill of Summer, a more general account of the seasons from April to September, is less interesting). To read The Peregrine at one sitting would be like looking through a telescope – an instrument which Baker used – for three hours without
a break.
The principle which animates his minute study is not scientific, however. It is a quest, a hunt. As Humbert Humbert pursued Lolita, as the hermit pursues God, so JA Baker pursues the peregrine. You find him on his knees, or crawling, or hiding for hours – stalking.
Why does he do it? One reason is a hatred – sadly common in the genre - of mankind. "We are the killers," he writes. "We stink of death. It sticks to us like frost." He resents his predicament which keeps nature at bay: "Like all human beings, I seem to walk within a hoop of red-hot iron, a hundred yards across, that sears away all life." By stilly watching the hawk, by "being" one, he finds that the red-hot iron "cools, and slowly disappears". It is strange that Baker complains that men kill, because it is the killing by the peregrine which, above all, he loves, and describes over and over again with Homeric variety.
Like all great loves, his longing for the hawk cannot be requited. The most poignant passages are those when he imagines that the love-object has noticed him favourably. It is the last night before the peregrine migrates abroad. He is by the sea-wall. The author is desperate to be close to him, inwardly imploring him not to leave yet. He gets within five yards of him: "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." - Charles Moore


Even though I was born almost in Essex, giving me an enduring taste for the exceptional qualities of an unexceptional landscape which I often indulge by walking in it, I hadn’t read (or, frankly, even heard of) J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine until it was reissued by New York Review Books a few years ago. Robert Macfarlane’s introduction says that almost nothing is known about Baker except that he was born in 1926 and was diagnosed with a serious illness around the time the book was published in 1967. The NYRB blurb added that ‘he appears to have worked as a librarian for the remainder of his life.’ There was no date of death.
The book is written in the form of a journal over six months, from October to April. Criss-crossing on his bicycle a small area of countryside to the east of Chelmsford, Baker is on the track of a peregrine falcon – less murderous in intent than Captain Ahab, but no less obsessed.
MacFarlane senses an atmosphere of requiem in the pages. The writer’s mood veers from calm – ‘all peaceful, just the talk of the duck floating in with the tide’ – to almost feral. Out in the open, man and bird ‘live… the same ecstatic, fearful life. We fear men.’ The writing is passionate, angry and elegiac. ‘I do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behaviour of the watcher are also facts, and they must be truthfully recorded.’
By the end, despite the soaring beauty of the writing, it’s almost overwhelmed by a sense of nihilism and desperation. Watching a seal in the shallows, Baker writes that its life ‘seems a better one than ours. We have no element. Nothing sustains us when we fall.’ As the agrochemical revolution of the 1960s ravaged the wildlife of arable and non-arable Essex alike, as the long hard winter ground the countryside down, as Baker pedalled on his well-worn route out towards the coast, the marshes and mudflats, his prose turned ever darker. He was less willing to deal with daily reality, more and more enamoured of the birds he was stalking. He followed the falcons until his ‘predatory self’ dissolved into the ‘winter land’. Readers are given no clues to his fate. Perhaps he just walked out to sea? I have to confess to a bit of fruitless googling and was sorely tempted to ask Chelmsford Library about him, only to learn another admirer had already done so. No luck.
A Baker compendium was published earlier this year, combining The Peregrine, Hill of Summer (his only other book) and diary extracts. The introduction is by Mark Cocker, another, like MacFarlane, in the expanding ‘school’ of younger nature writers. He is writing about a different man. This John Alec Baker, born and brought up in Chelmsford, was no librarian, but worked first as a manager for the Automobile Association (though he didn’t drive) and then for Britvic, the fruit juice manufacturers whose clock tower is one of Chelmsford’s landmarks.
The diaries were a gift from Baker’s wife to the film-maker David Cobham. She died in 2006, having long outlived her husband, who had died in 1987 from the effects of drugs prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis. And the diaries, covering the years from 1954 the 1963 (about a third are published here), show him in telegraphic style, watching wildlife – meticulously noting dates, times and weather conditions – anywhere that could be reached in a day’s bike ride from Chelmsford, west as well as east. Readers of The Peregrine might have suspected that, as with John Evelyn’s so-called diaries, the sequence of days and months is a touch too neat not to have benefited from a retrospective polish. Baker writes of the months of snow during the winter of 1962-63 but adds telling details from other years, distilling the observations of a decade into the book.
The Peregrine, as Mark Cocker writes, is still ‘the gold standard for all nature writing’. But its imagined author, the Romantic denizen of the county library bookstacks, bearing his awful sentence of death, a man with sympathy for nothing and no one except the birds he watched in sodden fields, dying hedges and on rain-swept mud flats, turns out to have been a literary half-myth – a writer created by his readers, based on much less than implication. Baker’s reluctance to give any personal information (though he dedicated the book to his wife) ensured that everyone contributed their own small ‘observations’ to a convenient fiction. The pain in Baker’s book was felt for the falcons, apparently facing certain extinction from farm chemicals. (From which they are now thankfully reprieved.) Identifying so closely with them, Baker inadvertently led his readers down a false trail, leaving us peering into the tea leaves at the bottom of the book. -

Few books can be said to have had such a profound impact on British nature writing as J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. Little seems to be known of Baker’s life but we know much about his attitudes to the natural world through his writing. Published in 1967, The Peregrine went on to win the Duff Cooper Prize and, since then, it has been revered by contemporary writers such as Robert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey and Ted Hughes as a classic of 20th century non-fiction. It is an incredible text but one that seems even more important today. Its advice, if it can be labelled as such, is something that anyone who lays a claim to loving the natural world can appreciate.
For those new to the book, there is not much of a narrative to speak of; no great ups and downs and nor is it one of those texts, such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that invokes an immediate call to arms in order to save wildlife. The Peregrine is a quiet book, though desperately intense: ‘It veered to the right, and passed inland. It was like a kestrel, but bigger and yellower, with a more bullet-shaped head, longer wings and greater zest and buoyancy of flight. It did not glide till it saw starlings feeding in stubble, then it swept down and was hidden among them as they rose. A minute later it rushed overhead and was gone in a breath into the sunlit mist. It was flying much higher than before, flinging and darting forwards, with its sharp wings angled back and flicking like a snipe’s. This was my first peregrine.’
In the flat fenland of coastal Essex, J.A. Baker came into contact with a bird that changed his world. The peregrine became an obsession. He observed their behaviour, described their activities, pummeling the reader with eyebrow-raising facts: ‘The eyes of a falcon peregrine weigh approximately one ounce each; they are larger and heavier than human eyes. If our eyes were in the same proportion to our bodies as the peregrine’s are to his, a twelve-stone man would have eyes three inches across, weighting four pounds.’ Baker tracked them as the peregrines hunted their prey, noted their eating habits, vowing that he would ‘share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life’. Which is precisely what he does. Nothing much happens - it should be said - but here literature and nature mix in the most exquisite manner. This is pure prose poetry at its best, a sublime evocation of the Essex landscape as it was. And in the nothing happening, nature is all there for us to see. Interestingly, this is not a wild landscape - this is our intensive agricultural world. We are all of us surrounded by non-natural landscapes and yet Baker shows us the many rhythms and complexities to be something we can all tune in to. Moreover, a transition begins - Baker begins to adopt the consciousness of the peregrine itself, losing his human edge, getting ever closer to this elusive bird.
‘Screened by the low green bank of the wall, I stumble along on my hands and knees towards the place where I think the hawk will be, hoping he will stay there till I come. The short grass is dry and brittle and sweet-smelling. It is spring grass, clean and sharp as salt water. I bury my face in it, breathe in it, breathe in the spring.’
Buried within the poetic language and the seemingly eccentric quest to observe nature is a manifesto. Beneath this quiet observation, this passionate hunt, The Peregrine is a book about connecting with nature on a level that many of us probably would not consider. It teaches us many things, the most important of which is that the natural world will not be understood online, or from a day trip somewhere. We can only scratch the surface in this way. I like to think that Baker would encourage us to somehow recreate his obsession, to head out into our own local landscapes and simply observe, monitor, listen. Baker can also teach us that to experience this bliss of connecting with the natural world, we do not need to become Henry David Thoreau and build a cabin in the woods. The Essex fenlands, an agricultural landscape, a factory without walls, is not unlike many other parts of the country. The British rural landscape is unique in this way, unlike the true wildernesses, but it accessible to many. In fact, in any landscape, we can discover remarkable experiences if we look at things with a renewed sense of passion. We, too, may eventually see the natural world through the eyes of other species - any surely only then can we begin to truly understand it. - Mark Newton


Last winter I was walking past the “Nature” section of a bookstore when a thin NYRB Classic caught my attention. “J.A. Baker The Peregrine,” it said. I know little about birds, but for some reason I stopped and picked it up. Turning to the first page, I read:
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 reflections 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.
So began my introduction to Baker’s Essex, which, though pleasant-looking, is no Lake District. The Peregrine makes it otherwise. Baker dedicates to this land an imagination that is foil and febrile kin to Wordsworth’s genius. His prose has a sheer disorienting power: the words of a place raised out of time yet shaped through historical time. The uncertainty of wildness is at its center, bound to a persistent human namelessness that hangs on the fringes: “As so often on spring evenings, no birds sing near me, while all the distant trees and bushes ring with song. Like all human beings, I seem to walk within a hoop of red-hot iron, a hundred yards across, that sears away all life. When I stand still, it cools, and slowly disappears.” Such prose slips the reader out of the here-and-now and into a middle position between the narrator’s searing hoop and a mirage of vitality.
Not much is known about the person who wrote of the joys and pains of this circumscribed condition, this man who saw himself as chained to his own life-repelling life. The biographical facts that have been established do little to diminish the myth that has formed around his life and work: he was born and lived in Essex, he was married and doesn’t seem to have had children, he worked at the Automobile Association but never learned to drive, he got around on foot and bicycle; later in life he worked at the soda company Britvic, he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and died of cancer. More details, especially about Baker’s early life, have been collected in recent years through interviews with a few close friends. This fall the first biography of him will be published. The Peregrine originally came out in 1967 and won the Duff Cooper Prize for nonfiction in 1968. Since then it’s been enthusiastically praised by Robert Macfarlane, Andrew Motion, Barry Lopez, and Werner Herzog. We don’t know what relationships Baker had to other writers, or editors and publishers, but they were probably minimal. He wrote only one other book, The Hill of Summer, published in 1969. When he died in 1987 he was hardly a public figure.
The legend of The Peregrine has continued to grow, and the man who wrote so memorably about the desire to disappear has now passed under his book’s concave shadow. What wasn’t fully possible in life has become possible in death: “I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; to return to the town as a stranger. Wandering flushes a glory that fades with arrival.” Spoken like a true wayfarer, a pilgrim.
Baker tells us that he followed peregrines for ten years, and that his book is the record of one season’s pursuit, lasting October to April. In fact his book is a compression of ten years of experience and observation into a focused period of mystical journeying toward the outward edge of things. It’s a quest poem in prose, but lacking the human-centered incidents typical of quest poems and fiction, and with an unusual reticence. Not only does the narrator say nothing about his life or his past, he also abstains from the contemplative involvement of, say, the narrator in Walden. He is shorn of biography, austere like Wallace Stevens’s snow man: moving through isolation, stopping for long periods to observe what occurs apart from him, aware of the breath that leaves the heat of his body for the cold of the land. The action, so to speak, emerges around the falcon and Baker’s dogged pursuit of it. When he provides rare self-portraits of himself as pursuer, he appears like one of the slinking creaturely specters of Beckett’s fiction: “I crept towards them along a dry ditch, inching forward like the tide. I crawled across stubble and dry plough.” He aims to achieve alarm-dissipating invisibility: “Hood the glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting face, assume the stillness of a tree.”
If this is a grail poem, though, why does Baker chase the falcon? It’s not to capture or tame it, and certainly not to kill it. He wishes to join it, but even in moments of greatest identification, when his language shifts from metaphor and longing into consummation, it isn’t long before the dream of union breaks up: “I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk…Like the hawk, I heard and hated the sound of man, that faceless horror of the stony places. I stifled in the same filthy sack of fear. I shared the same hunter’s longing for the wild home none can know, alone with the sight and smell of the quarry, under the indifferent sky…I sank down and slept into the feather-light sleep of the hawk. Then I woke him with my waking.” His imagination takes him far into the life of the bird, but of course he can never deliver himself from the limits of his human consciousness. And so the unspoken concession running through the book is that his query can be no more than repeated and prolonged observation of the bird in all the changes of its existence. This is also an imperative task: the bird of power and grace is dying.
During the years of Baker’s venturing in the Essex countryside, the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s, falcons were declining rapidly due to farm pesticides. A sense of irremediable loss is felt in what he sees (at the time Baker had no reason to predict the recovery that has since occurred among falcon populations in southern England). His vantage is retrospective, his outlook grim, the mood elegiac: “The long pursuit is over. Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive. Many 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…It is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still.” Mortality is like a banner over the daily intrigues of hunting, bathing, resting, flying: it is the inescapable decree of this world. The future is foregone: “They had no song. Their calls were harsh and ugly. But their soaring was like an endless silent singing. What else had they to do? They were sea falcons now; there was nothing to keep them to the land. Foul poison burned within them like a burrowing fuse. Their life was lonely death, and would not be renewed. All they could do was take their glory to the sky. They were the last of their race.” The birds are like little King Arthurs, even if what makes them noble is a peculiar form of rapacity.
The Peregrine is more than an elegy for these particular beloved birds—it’s also a pastoral elegy on a grand scale, rendered in the guise of field notes: the bird’s imminent destruction isn’t considered anomalous but seen instead as a local manifestation of continuous, ever-present loss. The Essex of Baker’s mind is occasionally comic, frequently exalted and exalting, ideal, merciless, cruel. Brightness and fear are repeated among creatures throughout the land. Their days are pleasant, spared the troubles of human thought, but for many of them the idle hours of hunting and hiding build to an abrupt, violent end. About the thrush, Thomas Hardy’s famous herald of inscrutable hope, Baker warns: “We should not sentimentalise his song, and forget the killing that sustains it.” Et in Arcadia ego. “A day of blood; sun, snow, and blood.” “Blood looked black in the dusk, bare bones white as a grin of teeth. A hawk’s kill is like the warm embers of a dying fire.” “When I lifted the soft damp body, the long wings fell out like fans. The crows had not yet taken the lovely river-shining of its eyes.” Baker follows his vision far beyond a journeyman’s recording of nature’s mundane gore, into rapturous, virtuosic set pieces:
He hovered, and stayed still, striding on the crumbling columns of air, curved wings jerking and flexing. Five minutes he stayed there, fixed like a barb in the blue flesh of the sky. His body was still and rigid, his head turned from side to side, his tail fanned open and shut, his wings whipped and shuddered like canvas in the lash of the wind. He side-slipped to his left, paused, then glided round and down into what could only be the beginning of a tremendous stoop. There is no mistaking the menace of that first easy drifting fall. Smoothly, at an angle of fifty degrees, he descended; not slowly, but controlling his speed; gracefully, beautifully balanced. There was no abrupt change. The angle of his fall became gradually steeper till there was no angle left, but only a perfect arc. He curved over and slowly revolved, as though for delight, glorying in anticipation of the dive to come. His feet opened and gleamed golden, clutching up towards the sun. He rolled over, and they dulled, and turned towards the ground beneath, and closed again. For a thousand feet he fell, and curved, and slowly turned, and tilted upright. Then his speed increased, and he dropped vertically down. He had another thousand feet to fall, but now he feel 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.
And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending—hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and snow filling the bill’s wide silent scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk’s beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away.
And for the hawk, resting now on the soft flaccid bulk of his prey, there was the rip and tear of choking feathers, and hot blood dripping from the hook of the beak, and rage dying slowly to a small hard core within.
And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed.
There’s glory in that passage, and beneath the glory, though he’s called himself “the guiltless hunter,” it’s possible to make out the pulse of guilt, which ripples into grief. For all the awe, all the tribute to grace and prowess in such scenes, every kill is a reminder of the expulsion from Eden and history’s long intractable confusion, of the natural fact that existence has reinforced and been determined by alienation and blood. Foreboding creeps back. Baker’s words bear an unshakeable recoiling impulse. The day of sun, snow, and blood referred to above ends with this observation: “Nothing is as beautifully, richly red as flowing blood on snow. It is strange that the eye can love what mind and body hate.” And that passage about the intact “lovely river-shining eyes”? It concludes: “This handling of the dead left a taint upon the splendour of the day, which ended in a quiet desolation of cloud as the wind fell and the sun passed down.”
The further we get into the book, the more urgent Baker’s desire to join the falcon in its dream of wild existence. He remains notably restrained—the growing urgency is relative. But unmistakably, the sense of being cut off sharpens. He becomes more explicit in his alienation from human society, sometimes bordering on misanthropy. In its echoes of immemorial loss, the writing resembles the plaintive voices that tear at landscape in traditional pastoral elegies. However, Baker’s prose is the subdued version of those voices, evoking the two speakers of Sidney’s “Ye goatherd gods” while also serving as their counter, a model of disciplined, limited confession in place of their hectic exaggeration. There is great sorrow behind the lines, “It is a good life, a seal’s, here in these shallow waters. Like the lives of so many air and water creatures, it seems a better one than ours. We have no element. Nothing sustains us when we fall.” Without any personal details, it’s a full personal history. At once the passage reflects collective experience and concisely reveals the speaker’s suffering.
Out of this profound alienation—the intense imagining of impossible union with a life of power and grace, and the resulting consignment to the devotional labors of communion—come the book’s extreme visions of beauty. It’s hard to imagine them formed in a mind more at ease. Baker’s prose invites comparisons to many writers, but is ultimately, in the final assemblage, like none of them. He is enraptured like Woolf in her essays of exaltation: “The shining mauve and silver woods, snow-rooted, bit sharply black into the solid blueness of the sky.” “A wave of turquoise froze into a kingfisher standing on a stone, then broke, and flowed away round a bend of the stream.” He has the Anglo-Saxon sounds of Hopkins: “…the feathered bloodstain in the woodland ride.” “Gluttonous, hoarding jay; he should have hedge-hopped and lurched from tree to tree…” And he is like Proust watching the steeples of Martinville turn in the sky: “Woods floated clear along the ridge.” “Distance moves through the dim lines of the inland elms, and comes closer, and gathers behind the darkness of the hawk.” This last sentence is like the book in miniature: not something moves in the distance, but distance itself, that abstract but palpable thing, moves.
The idea, which occurs at the end of the narrative, gestures back toward one of its opening images: “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.” Space and motion have been ecstatically recomposed. As in any great poem of pilgrimage, a spontaneous world of vision rises up around the wayfaring devotee with every step. Baker began by telling us that “the hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” and in the pages that follow he shows us what is there in confounding, paradoxical language: “the red-gold burnish of his plumage glowing into dimness.” “The peregrine sank up into the blue depths.” “A green woodpecker flew ahead . . . sinking into heavy flight.” The “river light of the estuary” dissolves into “the bleaker brightness of the sea.” When Baker tells us that “the most exciting thing about a hawk is the way in which it can create life from the still earth by conjuring flocks of birds into the air,” he’s giving us the standard for his book. Remaking language, he remakes the world: he restores to its full strange extent the phenomena of life, of movement, of sound and vision, waking them out of the stillness of mundane acquaintance in vivid patterns above our disappointed human life. His book is a religious plaint and tribute, at times cold, at times bitter, but a work of prayer, an expression of insatiable desire not for violence or power but disappearance, which, given the dominant forces of our history, is in its way an admirable longing. Even without knowing much about him, we can assume that, like most of us, J.A. Baker wasn’t a saint. But he was without a doubt a poet. In writing The Peregrine, he renewed the world without giving it impure polish, and does so every time someone reads his book. -




The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer, and Diaries


J. A. Baker, The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer, and Diaries: The Complete Works of J. A. Baker, HarperCollins, 2011.


Should you wish to identify a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) you would most certainly consult a field guide. Should you wish to know a bit more about what ornithologists have discovered concerning this species, a life history or ornithological monograph about them would be your best bet. However if you wish to discover what makes these splendid birds the masters of their world that they are, what makes them tick, indeed, what their very zeitgeist is, then you will need seek out and read a copy of J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine. J. A. (John Alec) Baker wrote The Peregrine in 1966. It was, and still remains, a unique work in entire category of twentieth century writing. Although awarded the Duff Cooper Prize in 1967 for being the best work published in English or French in the categories of “history, biography, or political science,” merely classifying The Peregrine at all has been something of a challenge to librarians, booksellers, and critics alike. While most commonly considered to be a work of natural history, it is often understood as a memoir or even occasionally a work of fiction. Much of this has to do with Mr. Baker’s curious but highly successful technique of condensing ten years of field observations recorded from 1955 through 1965 in his native Essex, England into a narrative that itself spans only half a single “synthetic” year. But make no mistake; this is not a work of fiction. Baker was adamant that everything he included in The Peregrine had been observed in the field – just not exactly during the same calendar year. Lyrical but not overly flowery, informative without being pedantic, The Peregrine is a book in which it is very easy to become enthralled. Baker’s clean, natural style perfectly suits his subject, capturing the grace and beauty, and well mirroring their perfectly evolved ecological position as masters of the sky; just as in a wild peregrine’s very physical structure itself, everything necessary is present and nothing superfluous is allowed to remain. Included in this new Collins edition of The Peregrine are also two additional and far less well known works by Mr. Baker; the somewhat enigmatic, first person present, impressionistic portraits of diverse English habitats published collectively as The Hill of Summer in 1969, and selections from his diaries for the years between 1953 and 1961. The inclusion of these works, as well as the well-written and enlightening introduction by the renowned natural history author Mark Cocker, author of Birders: Tales of a Tribe, Crow Country and other works of particular merit, make this new edition of The Peregrine not only the essential volume for all admirers of the work of J A. Baker but also a must-read for all those who appreciate great natural history writing. - http://www.wellreadnaturalist.com/2011/09/the-peregrine-the-hill-of-summer-and-diaries/








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