A couple of weeks ago, John Gray, the political philosopher and former Professor of European Thought at the LSE, gave a talk on Radio 4’s Point of View in which he spoke about John Baker’s book The Peregrine. First published in 1967 and recently reissued, the book, Gray said, ‘is seemingly a piece of nature writing which slowly reveals itself as the testament of someone struggling to shed the point of view of a human observer’. Though Baker’s book has been in the house for several years, I had never read it. Now I have, and what a remarkable book it is.
In the opening pages, Baker explains that his purpose is to pursue a fascination with peregrines that has gripped him since he saw his first one ten years previously. He writes that he ‘came late to the love of birds’:
For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision. They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us. Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach. They race to oblivion. They are old before we have finished growing.
For ten years Baker followed the peregrine – ‘I was possessed by it. It was a grail to me’ – now he will set down a diary of a single winter, following peregrines in his small area of coastal Essex from autumn through to spring. If that sounds mundane, Baker he states this purpose in words that unveil the ecstatic tone of the writing that electrifies this extraordinary book:
Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.
In the introduction to the NYRB Classics edition that I was reading, Robert Macfarlane writes, ‘The Peregrine is not a book about bird-watching, it is a book about becoming a bird’. For Baker hopes that by immersing himself in the life of the peregrine he will be able to get as far away from people as he can and escape the shackles of his human form:
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.
From October to April, Baker goes out almost every day, on foot or cycling, sinking into the landscape, noting the seasons’ shift and the changing light, observing the diurnal habits of the peregrine and the other creatures of field and shore. By avoiding human place names, Baker manages to create a strange, mythical landscape from his corner of Essex. It is the landscape as seen by a peregrine, soaring high above:
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 toward 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 toward them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.
Baker is especially good at imagining how a peregrine sees the landscape and things in it, perceiving not detail but form and and the interrelation of form:
The peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water. The peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endlessly varying quadrilateral shapes of fields. He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries… He sees maps of black and white.
Baker’s prose is extraordinary. Like Shakespeare, he makes it up. Words are wrenched from their moorings to serve new purposes: nouns become verbs, verbs become adjectives. He gives us vivid portrayals of landscape and stunning descriptions of the ‘stoop’, when the peregrine powers into its prey from a height of up to three thousand feet at speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour:
A falcon peregrine, sable on a white shield of sky, circled over from the sea. She slowed, and drifted aimlessly, as though the air above the land was thick and heavy. She dropped. The beaches flared and roared with salvos of white wings. The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds. The falcon rose and fell, like a black billhook in splinters of white wood. She slashed and ripped the air, but could not strike.
Starlings rose into the sky like black searchlight beams, and wavered aimlessly about, seeking the hawk. Woodpigeons began to come back from the east like the survivors of a battle. … From every wood and covert, as far as I could see, flock after flock went roaring up into the sky… The peregrine was clearing the entire hill of its pigeons, stooping at each wood in turn, sweeping along the rides, flicking between the trees, switchbacking from orchard to orchard, riding along the rim of the sky in a tremendous serration of rebounding dives and ascensions. Suddenly it ended. He mounted like a rocket, curved over in splendid parabola, dived down through the cumulus of pigeons. One bird fell back, gashed dead, astonished, like a man falling out of a tree. The ground came up and crushed it.
This is how Robert Macfarlane sums up Baker’s remarkable writing style:
Like all extreme stylists, Baker was a metalworker, heating the language until it became pliable, then bending and torquing it into new shapes. Again and again, he surprises us at the level of the sentence, as nouns become verbs and verbs become adjectives: “Five thousand dunlin rained away inland, like a horde of beetles gleamed with golden chitin”; “The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedges”; “Four short-eared owls soothed out of the gorse.”
Baker’s style is at its most heightened in the set-piece descriptions – each as formal and dynamic as any Imagist poem – of the peregrine’s chase and its “stoop”; that “sabring fall from the sky”, when the hawk drops into its prey from a height of up to 3,000 ft, killing with the shock of impact as much as with the slash of talons.
Someone has calculated that, in the course of the book, Baker encounters 619 carcasses of kills by peregrines. At the culmination of one particularly vivid description of a stoop, Baker writes of the empathetic satisfaction he feels as he observes these kills:
And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed.
So what was it that drew John Gray to The Peregrine? Although in the ten minutes available to him in the Radio 4 talk he didn’t develop the critique of humanism that lies at the heart of his most controversial book Straw Dogs, his argument rested on the same principle: that the humanist idea that animals are inferior versions of humans is fundamentally misguided. ‘There’s no evolutionary hierarchy with humans perched at the top’, insisted Gray:
Each of the millions of species that evolution has thrown up is different and particular, and the animals with which we share the planet aren’t stages on the way to something else – ourselves. The value of animals – or as I’d prefer to say other animals – comes from being what they are. And it’s the fact that they are so different from humans that makes contact with them so valuable to us. […]
It seems clear that the human animal needs contact with something other than itself. For religious people this need may be satisfied by God, even if the God with whom they commune seems too often all-too-human. For many landscape gives a sense of release from the human world, even if the land has been groomed and combed by humans for generations, as it has in England.
The contemplation of field, wood and water intermingling with wind and sky still has the power to liberate the spirit from an unhealthy obsession with human affairs. Poets such as Edward Thomas and Ted Hughes have turned to the natural world in an attempt to escape a purely human view of things. […] The most intense example of this search I know is that recorded by John Baker in his book The Peregrine.
Gray focussed on how, as the months pass, Baker’s own identity seems to dissolve into that of the hawks he observes, as revealed in this most striking passage:
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.
Gray, like Macfarlane, draws our attention to how the pronouns shift here – from the human ‘I’ to the common ‘we’:
Note how Baker switches suddenly from describing the hawk watching him to describing how ‘we’ flee from humans. Baker found a sensation of freedom in the feeling that he and the hawk were fused into one. Sharing in the “exaltation and serenity” of the birds’ life he could imagine that he’d shed his human identity, at least for a time, and could view the world through hawks’ eyes.
Of course he didn’t take this to be literal truth. He knew he couldn’t in the end be anything other than human. Yet he still found the pursuit of the peregrine deeply rewarding, for it opened up a temporary exit from the introspective human world.
John Baker’s devotion to the peregrine hadn’t enabled him to see things as birds see them. What it had done was to enable him to see the world through his own eyes, but in a different way. His descriptions of the landscape of East Anglia are exact and faithful to fact. But they reveal that long-familiar countryside in a light in which it looks as strange and exotically beautiful as anything in Africa or the Himalayas. The pursuit of a bird had revitalised his human perceptions.
What birds and animals offer us is not confirmation of our sense of having an exalted place in some sort of cosmic hierarchy, it’s admission into a larger scheme of things, where our minds are no longer turned in on themselves. Unless it has contact with something other than itself, the human animal soon becomes stale and mad. By giving us the freedom to see the world afresh, birds and animals renew our humanity.
Increasingly, as the book draws to its close, Baker seems nauseated by the world of men. ‘We are the killers’, he writes. ‘We stink of death. It sticks to us like frost’. He resents his inability to dissolve completely into nature at bay:
Like all human beings, I seem to walk within a hoop of red-hot iron, a hundred yards across, that sears away all life.
So who was JA Baker? In his 2005 introduction to The Peregrine, Robert Macfarlane wrote that ‘there was not much to know’. At the time it was believed that JA Baker had spent his life in Chelmsford, Essex, working as a librarian. The year of his death was unknown. However, in 2010 Mark Cocker compiled The Complete Works of JA Baker and revealed in his introduction that earlier writers had been in pursuit of the wrong John Baker. This JA Baker ran the local branch of the Automobile Association (though he couldn’t drive, which explains why the material for his only two books was collected within bicycling distance of his home) and then for Britvic, the fruit juice manufacturers whose clock tower is one of Chelmsford’s landmarks. He died, aged 61, in 1987 from the effects of drugs prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis. It is now believed that his pursuit of the peregrines was prompted by the diagnosis of his serious illness.
The pain expressed in Baker’s book was felt for the falcons, apparently facing certain extinction from the use of agrichemicals such as DDT in the 1960s. Rachel Carson had alerted the world to the murderous effects of DDT on bird populations in Silent Spring only 5 years before The Peregrine was first published. A year later research showed that peregrine numbers had been cut by half in the previous 40 years. Writing in The Guardian in 2005, Robert Macfarlane commented:
Baker’s extraordinary book is an elegy in part for the peregrines, and in part for the landscape through which he and they both moved. By the mid-1960s, the atrocious impact of pesticides upon raptor populations in Britain was becoming apparent. In 1939 there had been 700 peregrine pairs; a 1962 survey showed a decline to half this number, with only 68 pairs appearing to have reared chicks successfully. The Essex countryside was also menaced, as it underwent reckless reshaping for the purposes of agribusiness. Hedges were grubbed up, spinneys and copses bulldozed, old lanes earthed over.
It must have seemed plausible to Baker that the peregrines and the landscape would become extinct. “I remember those winter days”, he mourns, “those frozen fields ablaze with warring hawks … It is sad that it should be so no longer. The ancient eyries are dying”. The book stands as requiem for both bird and place – or a sacred charm which might save them both.
Peregrines have regained their former numbers since DDT was banned in the UK, but Baker’s book will always be read as an elegy for nature destroyed by man:
No pain, no death, is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man. … We are the killers. We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.
On the last night before the peregrine migrates abroad, Baker is by the sea-wall. He is desperate to be close to the bird, inwardly imploring him not to leave yet. He gets within five yards of him:
Swiftly now he is resigning his savagery to the night that rises round us like dark water. His great eyes look into mine… I know he will not fly now. I climb over the wall and stand before him. And he sleeps.