The Peregrine by J. A. Baker

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This book was an extremely kind gift from James (@unbadged on Twitter). I’ve been meaning to write a review of it for ages, because it completely floored me. I don’t think I’ve ever read such beautiful nature writing, and I’m extremely grateful to James for introducing me to it.

I’m surprised that I had never heard of this book before, but now that I’ve read it, I’m suddenly seeing references to it everywhere, including this recent review by Robert Macfarlane. ‘The Peregrine’ was originally published in 1967, and was one of only two books Baker ever published. The volume James sent me is a very handsome reprint of both ‘The Peregrine’ and ‘The Hill of Summer’, together with some previously unpublished diaries, in an edition printed in 2010.

Baker was clearly a superb amateur1 naturalist. It is also clear from the very first pages that he is utterly obsessed with raptors, and with peregrines in particular. He is so successful at finding and following these birds because he has studied their lives minutely, and can predict (or make an educated guess about) where they are likely to be at any moment, and in any weather.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that the beauty and startling quality of his writing would be so arresting. I’m normally a fairly fast reader, but it took me ages to finish this book, because I was reading (and re-reading) parts like poetry, drinking it in and rolling it around my mouth like some prime single malt whisky.

Take these exquisite passages, for example. I could have chosen many others, as there is something beautiful on every page.

Four short-eared owls soothed out of the gorse, hushing the air with the tiptoe touch of their soft and elegant wings. (p. 57)

Mists cleared in the afternoon and widening rings of sunlight rippled out. A heron flew to a tree beside the brook. His legs reached down with a slow pedalling movement, like a man descending through the trap-door of a loft and feeling for the ladder with his feet. He touched the topmost twig, fumbled his spidery toes around it, gradually deflated himself down on to the long stilts of his legs, hunched and crumpling like a broken parasol. (p. 95).

He hovered, and stayed still, striding on the crumbling columns of air, curved wings jerking and flexing. Five minutes he stayed there, fixed like a barb in the blue flesh of sky. […] His feet opened and gleamed golden, clutching up towards the sun. He rolled over, and they dulled, and turned towards the ground beneath, and closed again. For a thousand feet he fell, and curved, and slowly turned, and tilted upright. Then his speed increased, and he dropped vertically down. He had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through the dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames. He became smaller and darker, diving down from the sun. The partridge in the snow beneath looked up at the black heart dilating down upon him, and heard a hiss of wings rising to a roar. In ten seconds the hawk was down, and the whole splendid fabric, the arched reredos and the immense fan-vaulting of his flight, was consumed and lost in the fiery maelstrom of the sky. (p. 114).

That last passage particularly captures the breathless, transported way he manages to capture these moments of drama, almost like a shaman finding their consciousness inside another animal. He is unsparing and unsentimental about death, describing the dismembered corpses of the peregrine’s kills that he comes across in vivid detail, showing the ways in which death can be beautiful as well as terrible and savage. In that respect, he reminds me of the author Alistair MacLeod, who writes about the relationship between people and nature in a similar way: loving, but unsparing.

I love this book, and I am sure I will return to it frequently whenever I need a hit of beauty, and to be reminded that — comparatively — I can’t write for toffee. However, there was one aspect of the book — or rather, of Baker’s behaviour — that made me want to shout at him: he could not seem to stop interfering in the lives of the animals he was watching. He watches a kestrel settle on a molehill to eat its kill, and rather than hanging back to watch, he moves towards it, scaring the bird from its hard-won meal. In another passage, he finds a peregrine, with soaked feathers, resting in a tree. “When I clapped my hands, he roused and flew back to the oak. Three times this manoeuvre was repeated.” Feel free to imagine me yelling at a book at this point. Just leave the poor bird in peace!

As Baker himself points out, most non-human animals see humans as predators. They often also have much sharper senses than we do, so in most circumstances it is impossible for them to remain unaware of us. However, it is perfectly possible, with practice, to learn how to fade from their consciousness while standing in full view. Most animals are sharply aware of the change in behaviour of a predator when it is actively hunting compared to when it has no interest in a chase, and part of that is an intense interest on the part of the predator. If you remain quiet and still, and learn to mask your interest and watchfulness, you become uninteresting to most animals, and gradually fade into the background, even if you are not in any way hiding.2

I think Baker was so obsessed with peregrines and other wildlife that he could simply not mask his intense interest, so his gaze was like a pair of headlights on full beam. I also think he wanted the birds to see and acknowledge him, to see himself reflected in their eyes, to become part-bird himself. I’m sorry for the long-dead birds that they were disturbed because of this intensity, but I’m grateful that it left us with this extraordinary book.

  1. In the sense that this was not the job he was paid to do. I think that his observational skills would rival most professional wildlife watchers. ↩︎

  2. Interesting fact: this works on humans too. I have been watching animals with other humans standing only a few metres from me for many minutes, with me in full view of them, and watched them suddenly startle as they have ‘seen’ me for the first time. I was fading myself in front of the animals, but it seems to have the same effect on humans as a side-effect. I think I learned how to do this as a kid, as I was always very good at hide-and-seek, and was often able to hide in plain sight in the playground. ↩︎