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Peregrinations – Scottish Review of Books

The Peregrine

J.A. Baker
Paperback HarperCollins Publishers 9780008216214
by Alasdair McKillop


May 2, 2017 | by Alasdair McKillop

I’ve been looking upward recently. Upward at the wooden cobwebs of the tree branches primed with green and upward at the finger-tip chimneys of cottages watching the canal. With biblical authority, the 50th anniversary edition of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine commands your gaze be lowered then, when released from its hold, raised higher than before.

Baker tracked peregrines on the Essex coast for ten consecutive winters starting in 1954. The journals containing his observations eventually ran to about 1,600 pages which he whittled into a book between 1963 and 1966, destroying most his notes in the process. The Peregrine was published in 1967 and won the Duff Cooper Prize. Baker then wrote nothing more of note until his death in 1987 except an article for the RPSB.            

Peregrine numbers were drastically reduced by the time of the book’s publication, first by a wartime extermination programme and then by the disastrous biological effects of organochlorine pesticides. The Essex countryside was also changing in ways that can’t have pleased Baker: with urban expansion, concrete was seeping into the fields. Additionally, the construction of a nuclear power station at Bradwell-on-Sea started in 1957 and, in the afterword to the new edition, Robert Macfarlane detects an unspoken fear of atomic devastation running through The Peregrine.

Baker was a poor physical specimen even without the aid of radioactive mutation. He was disqualified from war service because of his eyesight and, at the age of 17, he was diagnosed with an inflammatory form of acute arthritis. As Macfarlane remarks: “The peregrine was his dream-totem and also his prosthesis, perfected in precisely the way Baker was lessened.” Tramping the fields and country lanes, a form of winter was changing his own body as surely as the land under the peregrine.

The book takes the form of a diary of a single winter. Baker recounts his observations of the peregrines and other birds, the landscape changing through the seasons, and his own chiselled thoughts. “I do not believe that honest observation is enough,” he argued. “The emotions and behaviour of the watcher are also facts and they must be truthfully recorded.” The contents of the book are repetitive but Baker’s passion, his hunter’s obsession, gives it a fierce vitality and acts as its life force.

The Peregrine is red with an abundance of death unsentimentally recorded but the action of each entry surely disguises days filled with emptiness: there must have been long hours of nothing much at all. Time in the fields moves to a different rhythm “measured”, as he puts it, “by a clock of blood.” His pulse quickens and time speeds up only when the hawk is near. It helps, then, that Baker’s powers description are as limitless as the morning sky on a summer day, and the book is at least as much about the landscape controlled by the hawks as it is about the hawks themselves.

His accounts of peregrines attacking other birds in mid-flight have the sense of drama of a battle between two air forces. Macfarlane attributes the earth-tremor power of Baker’s writing to its “axe-knock stresses and ultra-kinetic syntax”. He has a poet’s confidence in the way he disregards the meaning and function of words, particularly verbs, so that they serve his purpose alone. But not just verbs. A nightjar’s song, for example, is described as an “odorous sound, with a bouquet that rises to the quiet sky.” The book blooms and brims with pages of similar lines but it’s hard to believe there wasn’t a huge imaginative effort involved in bringing them to the page.

Perhaps Baker’s intention was to mould language into unconventional shapes so that it might better reflect the sense of wonderment he was trying to convey. And some of the writing is truly wonderful: “The wood had kept its dusk all day and seemed now to be breathing it out again”. Or: “Sparrowhawks were always near me in the dark, like something I meant to say but could never quite remember.” At times, it seems like language is the only human construct he is comfortable bringing into a relationship with the natural world because he can render it subservient – through Baker, it is serving a purpose.

If he draws the human world close in any intentional way it is only so that he might thrust it away with more force. He seethes at its impositions and seems ashamed to have assumed a human form. His blood flows with all the anxiety accumulated since the fall and he knows it. “I always longed to be part of the outward life,” he confesses, “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”.

An important theme is his yearning for some sort of self-transformation, if not annihilation. Macfarlane argues it is a book about failing to become a bird and Baker, in the wild, seems to live a trance-life, an imagined-life, of permanent becoming. He writes: “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.” In one entry, Baker finds himself crouched over a kill with a peregrine watching, as though he were the deranged disciple of a serene master. “We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life,” he reported. “We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the intensity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their face.”

In their attitudes to death and fear of death, Baker perceives an important distinction between the human and natural worlds that can be reduced to the difference between design and instinct. In the entry for October 30th, he recalls coming across the body of a curlew, freshly killed. He picks it up and handles it before returning it to the ground. Knowing the peregrine was near, “its death would not be wasted”. On a nearby marsh he found a swan that had been shot in the chest and left to rot. It was “greasy and heavy to lift, and it stank” in his telling, and the discovery of it cast the day into desolation.

People, Baker believed, might be more tolerable if they had something to fear: “I do not mean fear of the intangible…but physical fear, cold sweating fear for one’s life, fear of the unseen menacing beast, incessant, bristly, tusked and terrible, ravening for one’s own hot saline blood.” If, as Macfarlane suggested, Baker feared the obliterating horror of nuclear death, he clearly didn’t consider it to be a sufficient restraint on collective behaviour. And what does this absence of fear say about the diminished power of God?

An undefined religious spirit disturbs the pages of the book like a strong wind scattering a bundle of autumn leaves, an impression emphasised by the final entry. As the dusk expands, Baker finds himself looking over a wall into the eyes of a peregrine just five yards away. It doesn’t fly but watches him. Eventually, convinced it will not depart, he steps over the wall and stands before it as though presenting himself to St Peter. Beautifully, ambiguously, the hawk just sleeps and we’re left unsure about whether a spiritual distance has closed or widened.

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