The Peregrine
by J.A. Baker (1967)
NYRB Classics (2004)
191 pp

One of the many things I like about NYRB Classics is that while they bring us works that should never have gone out of print they don’t focus on fiction only. They publish memoirs, travel journals, biographies, histories, nature sketches, etc. And since the mind behind the whole operation remains the same, you can read these knowing you’ll get your fill for great, literary, timeless writing. I’ve picked up several of these other-than-fiction titles, but the first I’ve read confirms what I wrote above. J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine is a phenomenal piece of nature writing I’d recommend even to those who most abhor nature writing.

I first heard about The Peregrine on Twitter when someone simply said that I must read it. I’m tempted to say the same thing here and make this my briefest review yet. But, because I highlighted so many passages and found so much that fascinated me, both because of the substance and the writing, I will go on — happily.

Reclusive J.A. Baker (in the introduction I learned that we don’t even know when he died) spent a decade tracking the peregrine falcons that hunted around his home. This is his account, laid out like a journal, of one of those years. In it, not only does he beautifully write about the weather and that land, he gets the heart racing as he describes a hunting scene. At other times, he personifies the wildlife; I particularly remember an episode where Baker stumbled upon an owl and the two looked at each other for quite some time: “It’s face was like a mask; macabre, ravaged, sorrowing, like the face of a drowned man.” But, as wonderful as they are, these objective scenes aren’t what make the book so great, that make the book transcendent.

First, and still not the most fascinating aspect, Baker, in a tone that foreshadows W.G. Sebald’s great The Rings of Saturn (my review here). In many ways, this is a patient walk around the countryside, a walk that presents to the narrator many objects that deserve deep reflection, a walk that I, as a reader, am happy to follow.

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.

Coincidentally, like The Rings of SaturnThe Peregrine also takes place in East Anglia and ruminates on the remnants of dead or dying pieces of history. In contrast, The Peregrine focuses exclusively on the passing of a place’s natural history. In the late 60s, pesticides and other pollutants had all but destroyed the peregrine population, among others.

I pursued them for many summers, but they were hard to find and harder to see, being so few and so wary. They lived a fugitive, guerrilla life. In all the overgrown neglected places the frail bones of generations of sparrowhawks are sifting down now into the deep humus of the woods. They were a banished race of beautiful barbarians, and when they died they could not be replaced.

For me, though, the most incredible aspect of this book is the portrayal of one man’s desire to escape humanity and become the creature he hunts. It is an account of a man who truly lives on the fringe, again, written beautifully.

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.

It is a strange, yet seductive transformation that occurs subtly throughout the book until Baker makes a surprising statement and finds himself at one with the hawk and baffled by humanity.

I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.

There is another book I’d like to draw a quick comparison to: Melville’s Moby-Dick (my review here). Perhaps I only remembered the great Moby-Dick chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” when I read in The Peregrine the phrase “tombstone whiteness of their faces,” and that small connection made me read Baker with Melville in mind. Nevertheless, there were many times I thought of that great book while reading this great book (yes, all three books that show up in this review are “great”). Both take a natural subject and blow it up to universal proportion. Both have the gift of language that both haunts and seduces.

There is a big difference, though: The Peregrine is a short book. There is no real excuse for not reading it now.

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By |2016-06-27T18:46:11-04:00March 3rd, 2011|Categories: Book Reviews, J.A. Baker|Tags: , , |10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Lee Monks March 4, 2011 at 4:32 am

    Great review and certainly a prompt to get hold of this – I urge the NYRB Thoreau journals upon you if you haven’t yet sought that out.

  2. leroyhunter March 4, 2011 at 5:01 am

    Sebald and Melville as comparisons? Wow. Sign me up.

  3. […] J.A. Baker: The Peregrine […]

  4. Max Cairnduff March 15, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    All that and short too? And as Leroy says, comparisons to Sebald and Melville.

    I think so. Thanks Trevor. I wouldn’t have looked at this without your review I suspect.

  5. Max Cairnduff March 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Rather wonderfully NYRB have also published The Goshawk, by the rather incomparable TH White.

  6. Max Cairnduff December 6, 2011 at 3:41 am

    This was among my birthday presents this year Trevor, which I’m very pleased about. Thanks again for bringing it to my attention.

  7. Trevor December 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Well, happy birthday, Max! Let me know how you like it — I think it’s the right time of year for it.

  8. Trevor December 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Once again, I note that you and Leroy bit at the same bait — I am about to review another NYRB Classic that I’m sure you’d both enjoy.

  9. Paul January 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    I just finished reading this last night and completely share your enthusiasm. Such a fascinating blend of peaceful, meandering descriptions of landscape, weather and pastoral nature interrupted by acts of extreme drama and violence.

    “He fell so fast, he fired so furiously from the sky to the dark wood below, that his shape dimmed to grey air, hidden in a shining cloud of speed. He drew the sky about him as he fell. It was final. It was death. There wasn nothing more. There could be nothing more.”

    I found myself marking passages on nearly every page – you’ve already touched on many of them. Baker’s metaphors were especially powerful, often causing me to stop and reread them several times. Here’s one of my favorites:

    “It was high tide at the estuary. As the land light faded, the sky above would grow bright with the shine of brimming water. The peregrine would fall upon the scattered tribes of sleeping waders. Their wings would rise into the sunset, like smoke above the sacrifice.”

  10. leroyhunter January 13, 2012 at 7:37 am

    A strange and wonderful book, Trevor. Like you I’m tempted to sum it up simply: “wow”, again.

    Some of the writing is extraordinary. I see the parallels you mentioned in your review, they are definitely there, but I kept thinking of another archetype: Homer. All that gold and bronze, the mythical distances he creates in his landscape, the martial, violent undertow that we never escape.

    And those eyes!

    It’s my habit to save the introduction until I’ve finished the book, and I think that works particularly well here. Having immersed myself in Baker’s thoughts and vision, it was useful and poignant to read the additional detail Macfarlane provides. But I’d urge other readers to let Baker’s words work on their blank, clear minds, free of expectations or extraneous detail – Baker provides quite literally none of the latter.

    Many thanks for pointing me to this Trevor. Superb and moving.

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