Books: The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

If there are any careful readers of this blog, they will have noted that although the subtitle reads “Words and photographs about Turkey, nature, and literature,” I have not in fact posted anything about literature. I’ve long meant to write pieces about books I love, but that do not necessarily have anything to do with Turkey. The aim is not to review so much as to write a short essay sharing and communicating my own enthusiasm, while trying to steer clear of those works with which everyone’s familiar. I expect to quote from them incontinently, and here is the first.

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“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.”

When it was published in 1967, JA Baker’s The Peregrine astounded England’s literary scene. The book was a birdwatching diary written by a hitherto unknown writer who had left school at 16 and was working as a manager at a local branch of a car insurance company. And yet from a small patch of the county of Essex, Baker squeezed prose of such distilled intensity and originality that his book would inspire a generation of British nature writers.

140 pages long, it is made up for the most part of a series of daily entries – wholly plotless – in which Baker charts his pursuit of peregrines wintering in the stretch of countryside and coastal estuary near his home. It is the kind of improbable, isolated masterpiece that could only have been written by an outsider, by someone unaware of or indifferent to the considerations of form that often conventionalize a literary work. Whole tracts of it read like a prose poem. This quotation is taken from a page chosen at random:

“A tawny owl calls from the wood’s dark hornbeam heart. He gives a vibrant groan; a long sensitive pause is held till almost unbearable; then he looses the strung bubbles of his tremulous hollow song. It echoes down the brook, breaking the frozen surface of the air. I look out at the west’s complexity of light. A heron, black against the yellow sky, kinked neck and dagger bill incised, sweeps silently down into the brook’s dark gulf. The sky infuses with the afterglow.”

It can be exhausting to read more than a few pages of Baker’s prose at a time. Again and again, I was jolted by the precision strikes of his language, the obscurely effective metaphors and turns of phrase. Flushed partridges are ‘like wound clockwork toys slowly spluttering into silence’; a peregrine ‘wanders idly around the blue cupola of the cooling sky’.

The book charts the evolution of Baker’s intense and remarkable relationship with the creature he follows: the peregrine, the fastest bird on earth and one of the most ruthlessly efficient of aerial predators. He relays in minute detail the peregrines’ habits. Over the course of six months in which they are wintering near his home, they come to recognise him to a point where he is able to approach within four or five yards of a bird feeding on a kill. He pursues the hawks – in particular two tiercels – with an obsession edging on the weird. 

“To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds, it fears the unpredictable. Enter and leave the same fields at the same time each day, soothe the hawk from its wildness by a ritual of behaviour as invariable as its own. Hood the glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting face, assume the stillness of a tree. A peregrine fears nothing he can see clearly and far off. Approach him across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. 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. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.”

The Peregrine is often described as a kind of elegy for the English countryside and its wildlife, which were facing intense destruction in the 1960s.  It’s true that Baker was writing at a time when the pesticide DDT was decimating wildlife in Britain, particularly apex predators like peregrines. His evocation of the bird and its hunting grounds is shot through with the pain of imminent loss – a world bathed in dying light. One of his most avid disciples, Robert MacFarlane, now one of the most prominent English nature writers, wrote this of the book.

MacFarlane describes well the strangeness with which Baker invests the English countryside, but he makes The Peregrine seem provincial. Baker’s prose is also animated by something other than the desire to capture a cherished and threatened landscape. It is about the nature of obsession, the paradoxical impulse both to possess the object of one’s desire, and dissolve oneself within it.

As he zeroes in on his subject, he intuits the bird’s inner life. He builds its psychology from the outside in, through meticulous observation and small logical steps. He describes its favourite bathing spots, the exact manner in which it butchers its prey, the structure of its huge and complex eyeball. 

It is  about the nature of subjectivity and the yearning to unite, through the act of observation, one’s inner mental world with an external reality. “The hardest thing of all to see,” he notes early on, “is what is really there.” Throughout the book, he clings to this notion that he can spring the trap of subjectivity. Often he comes up against the closed strangeness of the creatures he encounters. The face of a barn owl is a ‘bland meditative mask’; a little owl’s eyes are ‘bright, yet quite expressionless, as though they had been painted onto its head’.

There is a feeling on every page that he is straining at the barred gateways of perception, never quite accepting the impossibility of escaping the prison of the self and fleeing into the animals and landscapes around him. 

It’s not a book you can read compulsively or casually. The plotless form, with its repeated descriptions of the same birds and the same landscapes, will strike some people as boring. He acknowledges as much on the first page: “Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious,” he writes, before embarking on a description of the topography, soil, and woodland of his region.

The only comparable work I have read, so different in subject and origin though startlingly similar in method and effect, is Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Both books use repetition and the obsessive quartering of geographical space to break the strictures of narrative. Both writers are wise enough not to tax their reader’s attention for more than a hundred pages or so. But Jealousy has the drained feel of a literary experiment, as if Robbe-Grillet had made the machine but lacked the fuel to run it on. The Peregrine is complete, alive. A week after reading it, it lost the feel of a narrative and seemed a tangible object in my mind, soaring in its three-dimensional world.

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