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.
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 incorporate the formidable winter of 1962–3, and the harshness of the conditions suits the obsessive, elemental character of his writing. He names no places, encounters no one, speaks of nothing but the birds, the weather and the environment in which he finds himself. His locations are as anonymous as features in an artist’s view of Dark Age Britain (‘the big field by the river’, ‘the estuary’, ‘the saltings’) and he himself like someone from an even earlier age: ‘A vivid sense of place grows like another limb. Direction has colour and meaning . . . Time is measured by a clock of blood.’
The book is full of the drama of the everyday, the exhilaration of flight, the terrible beauty of the kill when the peregrine is at its most impressive, and Baker’s writing at its most ecstatic. Stylistically it is immensely assured too, whether instinctively or as a result of careful craft. The intensity of an account of the peregrine’s long fall from an immense height on to its prey in the snow, for example, is balanced by a briefer, searing description from the perspective of the victim: ‘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.’
Gradually the reader begins to see things differently, to develop a ‘bird’s-eye view’ of the patterned land and water and to revel, as Baker did, in the smallest details of flight, cloud formation, light. His writing is about the same things, over and over again, and yet he continually sees something new, describes something with a vivid freshness:
A shower cloud bloomed at the northern edge of the valley and slowly opened out across the sky. The peregrine circled beneath it, clenched in dark fists of starlings. Savagely he lashed himself free, and came superbly to the south, rising on the bright rim of the black cloud, dark in the sun-dazzle floating upon it.
Baker can characterize a bird in a few words that may not even describe the creature itself: ‘All wormy mud must have its wader. The fugitive woodcock finds his way along the small windings of the brooks and gulleys, past the forlorn ponds and the muddy undrained rides, to his hermitage of bracken.’ His inventiveness with language produces evocative passages that assault the senses: ‘The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedges, and smote through the thorny gaps’, for example, or ‘A whirl of goldfinches hurled out of the snow into the warm smell of a barn’. And his longer accounts of coming eye to eye with a tawny owl, or witnessing the pursuit and killing of a sparrowhawk, are simply mesmerizing.
Observing the peregrine’s magnificent mastery of its element leads Baker to further startling evocations, giving the air material form as he likens it to the sea:
At half past two the peregrine swung up into the eastern sky. He climbed vertically upward, like a salmon leaping in the great waves of air that broke against the cliff of South Wood. He dived to the trough of a wave, then rose steeply within it, flinging himself high in the air, on outstretched wings exultant. At five hundred feet he hung still, tail closed, wings curving far back with their tips almost touching the tip of his tail. He was stooping horizontally forward at the speed of the oncoming wind. He rocked and swayed and shuddered, close-hauled in a roaring sea of air, his furled wings whipping and plying like wet canvas. Suddenly he plunged to the north, curved over to the vertical stoop, flourished his wings high, shrank small, and fell.
Alongside ecstasy is desolation. The most obvious cause was the grave possibility, in 1960s Britain, that the peregrine would be annihilated by the use of farm pesticides (a crisis from which it has since triumphantly recovered). Bleakly, at the end of his introduction, Baker states: ‘For ten years I followed the peregrine. I was possessed by it. It was a grail to me. Now it has gone. The long pursuit is over. Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive.’ But beyond that immediate threat is a stark undertow, something fiercely comfortless as the writer longs for the extinction of self and a place in the natural world that he can never achieve.
For many years it seems that the world knew little of J. A. Baker, except that he was born in 1926, lived in Essex and won the Duff Cooper Prize for non-fiction with The Peregrine in 1968. He wrote one more book, The Hill of Summer, in 1969 and then apparently disappeared from view. It was thought perhaps that he had worked as a librarian and that a serious illness had informed his decision to devote himself to tracking the peregrine – and given the book its sometimes bleak tone.
In recent years, however, research – as explained in the 2011 Collins edition of Baker’s complete works – has revealed that he was already writing poetry as a young man. He lived in Chelmsford all his life, worked not in a library but for the Automobile Association (though his only means of transport was a bicycle) and was indeed afflicted with an illness, rheumatoid arthritis, which led to his early death at the age of 61 in 1986. His complete works consist simply of his two books, extracts from his diaries of 1954–63 and a despairing, elegaic article he wrote for the magazine RSPB Birds in 1971 when plans for a massive airport seemed likely to destroy the wilderness of the Essex coast.
The area he describes in The Peregrine is just a modest scrap of England, encompassing part of the Chelmer valley and the Blackwater estuary: the sort of countryside commonly regarded, perhaps, as neither romantic nor wild, ‘just a curve of the earth, a rawness of winter fields’. Baker’s words reveal it, as he hoped, as ‘a land . . . as profuse and glorious as Africa’.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 45 © Annabel Walker 2015