So, some of you who know me will also know of my fondness for many types of literature, and I get asked if I have a favourite book. The answer is that I have many and it’s hard to narrow it down but I thought I would share a few words put together a while ago (for another website) on one of my most loved - The Peregrine by J.A. Baker.
This extraordinary work is a classic of nature writing with brilliant, 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 marginal, swirling 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 book 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, has troubled many readers, with some ornithologists questioning the truth 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 hunts 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 ‘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 shed 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; momentarily he was seeing 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’.
At the time of publication and for many years after, little was known of the author: it was assumed that Baker had a connection with the world of books and literature – it was thought he might have been a librarian. 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. Baker sensed the death of the peregrines and their landscape… he thought the birds were lost as they faced extinction from DDT and other agricultural chemicals.
At the sea-wall on the night before the peregrine migrates, John Baker again 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’.