J. A. Baker
The Peregrine by J. A. Baker

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.” With these prophetic words, J. A. Baker began his 1967 volume entitled The Peregrine, a book that plays out in the Essex countryside over a ten-year period, having at its heart the deep-freeze English winter of 1962-63. It is a boiling down from untold pages of field notes (which the author subsequently destroyed) which resulted in these 170 pages of incomparable prose, representing the very pinnacle of nature writing. I know of no other instance in the genre (in English) that equals it, nor one that sees so much of what is really there out in the fields.

What emerges in the text is the distillation of a singular vision. Cycling out into the Essex countryside in all weathers, the author tramped fields, woods and ditches, seeking out peregrines. His heightened acuity (aided by binoculars and telescope) allowed him to identify nature at a distance so that, even in poor light, vague silhouettes or minor differences in flight behaviour provided an identity. For Baker, everything had a name. Not anonymous trees, hedges or woods, instead they were morose and smouldering alders, stunted hawthorn, pollarded ashes, gnarled and twisted oak, cricket-bat willows, etcetera, all precise, distinctive and familiar, named, known. The live surface of the land was textured and vibrant, despite his early observation that “detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious”. So too with birds, whether quick with movement or butchered as peregrine prey, all were named. He is, therefore, first and foremost the most reliable guide to the countryside that one could want. One’s confidence in his knowledge and field craft is total. Some twitcher!

Throughout the months of the pursuit of these majestic birds, we learn little about the author himself. His own retreat from the text is almost total. Little of his personality intrudes. Who that person is we need to infer (or turn elsewhere, such as to Hetty Saunders’ My House of Sky: A Life of J. A. Baker). There is the obvious single-minded determination, the early mornings, long days and late returns home; and there is a self-effacing exposure to the elements and to some degree of physical hardship. These say something - if only for what they hint at. Little of this figures in the narrative, and none is used for effect. They are necessary circumstantial facts. One is reminded of Geoffrey Household’s narration by the nameless central character of Rogue Male where anonymity is key. Any personal detail would be obtrusive, superfluous. To this extent, The Peregrine documents a driven focus that tells what is in view and almost nothing else. It is about the observed rather than the observer, and the book is all the better for it.

We come then to the matter at hand: how words can convey a creature that has the ability to fall out of the sky at speeds of around 250 miles per hour (110 metres a second), a creature that instils fear in nearly all other birds and small mammals. Barely four pages in, Baker extends the visual dimension of the relationship between himself and the bird:

Hawk-hunting sharpens vision. Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the obliqued axe cuts to the heart of the tree. (The Peregrine by J. A. Baker, p. 38)

This puts us on notice. A sharpened vision sees the fluidity of hawk-hunting, as if it is the bird that is stationary and the world that is in motion. This ‘angled’, almost norm-inverting view alerts us to what is to come. It is an image that he re-uses some eighteen pages later:

Like the seafarer, the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water. We who are anchored and earthbound cannot envisage this freedom of the eye. (The Peregrine by J. A. Baker, p. 56)

Here, the fluid world aloft is contrasted to that of us landlubbers below. The ‘pouring-away’ that leaves wake and sinking planes behind has the bird always ahead. These are dynamic images of great strength and clarity, as if the bird alone exists in a pinpoint of sharp focus, with all else stranded in an overtaken blur. And, tellingly, when these predators “have gone from sight”

you must look up into the sky; their reflection rises in the birds that fear them. There is so much more sky than land. (The Peregrine by J. A. Baker, p. 92)

This simple statement goes to the heart of the book. The earth-bound author can chase through hedges, follow across marsh and bog, hide in cover and wait in barns, but always on a relatively flat and limiting plane, whilst above the hawk has thousands of feet of open or clouded air in which to shrink to nothing or stoop out of nowhere. The verbs employed to convey this aerial mastery are legion: scull, swing, pull, bite, flick, beat, jerk, flex, whip, shudder, hover, feather, row, cleave, sweep, flap, then inevitably stoop, that specialized vertical plunge that by the application of gravity endows the bird with a terminal punch that few survive. At dusk one day, the bird sways and glides at speed, flowing, until it disappears “in a tremendous wing-lit parabola”. Baker’s peregrine vocabulary is masterly.

Yet vocabulary alone does not elevate The Peregrine to its reputational position. The norm-inversion that we saw above, with landscape pouring out behind what could be a stationary bird, appears in other contexts. A nearby shoot sees birds rising to escape, and being hit by the guns, so that “the white sky became black as the black ground whitened”. The eventual release from ice and snow at the end of the winter of 1962-3 is marked by the observation of a “strange unfamiliar green, like green snow fallen on white fields.” Elsewhere, we are arrested by a startling observation that “Some ponds were solid ice. They could be lifted up, leaving no water.” It’s as if the proverbial Martian has explained it, coining an image entirely fresh. The most extreme example of this inversion comes when a peregrine’s long stoop onto a partridge (page 139) starts with the descent as experienced by the hunter before the vantage point becomes that of the hunted.

Vocabulary and viewpoint are also joined by the sheer gift of fine writing, where the sum is so much more than the parts. Take this short passage where a tiercel (a male peregrine) cuts through a cloud of birds to take a woodpigeon:

The tiercel peregrine hurled down wind and rose on a gusting surge of birds. As the wave broke upward he stabbed down through the heart of it, so that the pulse died and the birds dropped back into the snow. A woodpigeon flew on with the hawk, limp and fluttering in the gin-trap of his foot, spilling red feathers and slow blood. (The Peregrine by J. A. Baker, p. 149)

The drama unfolds rapidly, yet Baker orchestrates it with contrasting falls and rises in the air, first a hurling that offers “down wind” (rather than “downwind”, suggesting that even the wind is subject to the bird’s power), yet it rises to meet birds that have fled up from the fields below. As their upward energy stalls, the hawk is again given a downward move, a stab, with the dual meaning of ‘heart’, which stops both the cloud of birds and the victim in their midst. As the survivors fall back, for a split-second the woodpigeon survives, appearing to fly on, until we realize that the hawk has taken it, eventually clearly visible as both emerge from the mêlée. The economy of 62 words, working to depict tension, direction, fall, rise, cause and effect, is breath-taking.

Much of this descriptive concision derives from that opening admission that seeing what’s “really there” is “the hardest thing”. A late October day is viewed with “a frozen cider sky”. A restless peregrine flew with “his usual loose-limbed panache”. Birds are “threshed up from the furrows and flung about like dead leaves”. Clearing a hill of its pigeons, a peregrine rides “along the rim of the sky in a tremendous serration of rebounding dives and ascensions”, an episode that ends with a single bird falling “back, gashed dead, looking astonished, like a man falling out of a tree”. Black-tailed godwits had “swordfish bills” and heathen laughter”, and were “dry-looking, crackly, bony birds”. A flock of teal murmured “like a distant orchestra tuning up”. A wood at sunset is filled with “the last rich dungeon notes of a crow”. The helmeted face of a tawny owl “was pale white, ascetic, half-human, bitter and withdrawn”. Amplifying this, Baker added that “this helmet effect was grotesque, as though some lost and shrunken knight had withered to an owl.” Woodcock effect a “catapulting ejection from bracken or bramble” that “always startles”. The bunched toes of a pair of peregrines “were ridged and knuckled like golden grenades”. Cormorants with outspread wings are “heraldic”. A heron landing in a tree “reached down with a slow pedalling movement, like a man descending through the trap-door of a loft and feeling for a ladder with his feet”. A blackbird “stared with bulging crocus eye, like a small mad puritan with a banana in his mouth”. Woodpigeons “rise like grey breath from every frozen plough”. A sparrowhawk’s irises are viewed as “an utterly terrifying insanity of searing yellow, raging and seething like sulphurous craters”. A cold east wind is described as “a blaze of lances”. Robins sing “clear as spring water … like the tinkle of a harpsichord, their song has a misty brightness of nostalgia”. The wings of a kestrel “quivered up and down like the blade of a ham knife”. Snipe overhead make a drumming sound “like a succession of giant arrows thrumming violently overhead … as though an oracle was about to speak from the sky”. The black and mustard yellow of golden plovers resemble “black shoes half covered with buttercup dust”.

After weighing these singular images, one concludes that this “hardest thing” of seeing applies to us but not to the author. We are in the presence of a Gerard Manley Hopkins without the religious devotion, a Dylan Thomas without the showmanship, a Ted Hughes without the intimations of an apocalypse, a writer fusing words into new-born images, fresh, distinctive and at a level that one rarely encounters. These are effective, not done for effect. Never strained or over-wrought, they are images that carry fresh meaning often with a startling immediacy.

In The Peregrine, Baker is not so much adding colour to a bleak, wintry landscape as showing us that it already exists if we but took the time to see it, literal colour and figurative colour. Oranges are bright, deep, whirling, fiery and glowing. Blues are burnished, warm, silver-blue, dark blue-black, blue-grey and molten. Greens are dark green, swift, green-brown, deep, dreary, moss-green, summer green, cold and cool. Reds come as sullen, golden-red, foxy, red-brown, rusty-red, copper-red, red-gold and tawny red. Greys are silver-grey, pale, mid-grey, slate-grey, soft, glowing with purple like broccoli, blue-grey, grey-brown or blotched with pink. White dwindles, flashes and glints, is pale, rain-spattered, bone-white and egg-white. Given time, one can imagine that Baker might have swapped notebooks for paint brushes and palette, bringing onto paper different marks but with the same variety and subtlety.

These colour-poem stretches of prose read as if they are attempts to capture a fast-disappearing world, one barely able to hold out against the “shackles of the known roads and the blinding walls of towns”. There is an unmistakable bonding between man and bird seen when the migrating “hawk that departs calls down his sorrow to the one that stays” (just one hawk in this pairing, I think, the one that stays being the author); and a final, enigmatic encounter over a sea wall, where the author manages to approach within five yards of a peregrine as the light has faded to near blackness and all colour has drained from the pair of them. The book thereby ends where it began when the author first wrote:

Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive. Many die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals. Before it is too late, I have tried to recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in, a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa. It is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still. (The Peregrine by J. A. Baker, p. 32)

This dying mirrors the ravages caused by pesticides that Rachel Carson had so shockingly exposed in her 1962 book Silent Spring. Baker would have been 36 when this was published (and just turned 30 when he started the field notes that worked their way into The Peregrine). His awareness of chemical pollution, in his own Essex just as much as in Carson’s America, punctuates the book, giving it an almost threnodic air.

Invisible even in a telescope magnifying sixty times, even in purest summer sky, they drifted idly above the glittering Channel water. They had no song. Their calls were harsh and ugly. But their soaring was like an endless silent singing. What else had they to do? They were sea falcons now; there was nothing to keep them to the land. Foul poison burned within them like a burrowing fuse. Their life was lonely death, and would not be renewed. All they could do was take their glory to the sky. They were the last of their race. (The Peregrine by J. A. Baker, p. 123)

It is hard to avoid the environmental winnowing that Baker is quietly documenting in The Peregrine. Seen from our vantage point some five and a half decades later, and notwithstanding the author’s passionate advocacy of a natural world under assault from the activities of man, The Peregrine is remarkably replete with bird life. No less than seven great-spotted woodpeckers “sailed out of a tree together, chittering like piglets”, an event that few of us are ever likely to see today. Starlings, woodpigeons, gulls and dunlin are repeatedly cited as being in thousand-strong clouds. Finches, rooks, gulls, lapwing and fieldfare appear in their hundreds. The secretive red-legged partridge appears in a group of forty. This would be a land of plenty by today’s standards yet, for Baker, already indicated calamity. The calamity was made-made and Baker does not spare us the detail. He came across a red-throated diver “sodden and obscene with oil”, a poisoned crow “gaping and helplessly floundering on the grass” and a rabbit “inflated and foul with myxomatosis”. “We are the killers. We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away”, he wrote. Separately, he admitted that “I avoid humans”.

The Peregrine is as much love letter and threnody as it is indictment. The brutality of the hawk itself - shown in page after page of stoop and kill, its victims littering the Essex countryside - is of an entirely different order to that caused by the activities of man. The book’s violence is not on a par with what one finds in Melville’s Moby Dick (separate post, this site) where harpoons and flensing knives are wielded in pursuit of commerce. Although both authors share that rare ability to come at something from wholly unexpected angles, helping us to see them afresh, The Peregrine rises with its subject, lifted by some of the most luminous prose we can encounter in English. This much, both books share. Baker’s passion for the subject marks it out as being very special and, after all, what purpose is ever served by nature writing if it is devoid of passion? Read it and be prepared to be shown what was “really there” when J. A. Baker saw it in the 1950s and 60s.

[The Peregrine - 50th Anniversary Edition by J. A. Baker, published by William Collins, is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]