The Peregrine, by J A Baker, is a strange book, like nothing else I have ever read. Robert Macfarlane wrote the introduction to this 2005 edition (the book was originally published in 1967). Macfarlane is a writer who puts himself centre stage; I find it a tiresome trait, though his books sell very well. He rifles through the thesaurus for new ways to describe the landscape, yet is curiously incapable of summoning up the spirit of place.
The determinedly unprolific Baker stays in the wings, and mentions people only when they are driving tractors or hunting with hounds or burning stubble in a distant field. They are like the figures who populate the background of a Pieter Breughel painting. He reveals nothing about himself, except his obsession with peregrine falcons. He mentions no place names, giving directions only as points of the compass - north, south, east, west - applied to the natural landforms of the flat East Anglian terrain: estuary, sand-bank, ridge, marsh, wood, pasture, river, sea.
The book, in diary format, covers a single winter, from October to April. Baker describes the natural world, with intense concentration, through the eyes of the peregrines. Even when he can’t see them, he monitors their presence by the behaviour of the other birds. His observations are acute, and he knows his birds (though I can’t help but wonder at swallows still being around during the last week of October!). The peregrine “dived, and the island birds were flung up like spray”. The peregrine’s wings “flicked the wind gingerly, like fingers lightly touching a hot iron”. “A moorhen walked stealthily across the frozen brook, with hushed, arthritic tread”.
He is an unsentimental witness to many kills. “The hawk lands on the softening bird, grips its neck in its bill. I hear the bone snap, like barbed wire cut by pliers”. And he identifies with the peregrines to a startling degree. “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 becomes the thing he hunts”.
His style can be lyrical. “The beagles are going home along the small hill lanes, the huntsmen tired, the followers gone, the hare safe in its form. The valley sinks into mist, and the yellow orbital ring of the horizon closes over the glaring cornea of the sun. The eastern ridge blooms purple, then fades to inimical black. The earth exhales into the cold dusk. Frost forms in hollows shaded from the afterglow. Owls wake and call. The first stars hover and drift down. Like a roosting hawk, I listen to silence and gaze into the dark”.
His descriptions are necessarily repetitious, as he returns to familiar haunts. The repetition works, up to a point, emphasising the rhythms and cycles of the birds’ behaviour patterns (he shows little interest in other wildlife), and the changes in the seasons. Eventually, though, I found myself speed-reading, and skipping a page or two. There are only so many ways to describe a flock of lapwings, or the flight of a peregrine, especially as the book has no narrative progression. It’s not a long book, but it could have been shorter still.
Baker only wrote one other book, then ‘disappeared’. Macfarlane suggests he worked as a librarian; he may, instead, have taken wing, like the falcons with which he identified so closely.