Living in buzzard country, I should have been looking for a book that would fill the many gaps in my knowledge of these avian next-door neighbours. In fact, I was simply searching for the best writing on birds when I came across J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967) – a book that isn’t so much the ‘best’ as the only writing of its kind on the subject. An account of the tracking of peregrines across a small patch of country in eastern England, its prose is really poetry of the most intense kind; experience compressed into a language that has been honed to the keenest of edges. Baker wields it fiercely, dispensing almost immediately with convention (‘Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious’), slicing early paragraphs of information into staccato sentences and cutting and splicing verbs, nouns and adjectives so that the reader cannot help but see all anew, through Baker’s passionate eye.
All is new, and strange too. Almost at the outset, Baker tells us:
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.
His quest, in following the peregrine, is to approach an understanding of how it experiences the world, and to do this he must ‘shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms.
Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all.’ Avoiding his own kind, he begins to imagine his surroundings as a peregrine might see them, ‘a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water’.
For ten years, Baker followed peregrines. His observations are condensed for the purposes of the book into a single season, which seems to incorpo
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