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 Saturn, The 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.