Henry Mountford, Features Writer

Review: The Peregrine By J. A. Baker

In J. A. Baker’s dazzling work of nature writing, The Peregrine (1967), the first encounter with a bird is not, surprisingly, with ‘the peregrine’, rather with a nightjar. Baker compares the nightjar’s song to wine.

Its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep and booming cask. It is an odorous sound, with a bouquet that rises to the quiet sky. In the glare of day it would seem thinner and drier, but dusk mellows it and gives it vintage. If a song could smell, this song would smell of crushed grapes and almonds and dark wood. The sound spills out, and none of it is lost.

We hear the sounds it makes, and then we get to see the thing itself:

Into the deep stillness, between the early stars and long afterglow, the nightjar leaps up joyfully. It glides and flutters, dances and bounces, lightly, silently away. In pictures it seems to have a frog-like despondency, a mournful aura, as though it were sepulchred in twilight. It is never like that in life.

These passages serve as a good introduction to Baker’s style and are characteristic of his methods. The prose is rich, sonorous, exciting: esses and vowel-sounds cascade euphoniously through phrases like “its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling”, whilst the descriptions of the song draw on several evocative synaesthetic comparisons (as in the gorgeous utterance, “this song would smell of crushed grapes and almonds and dark wood”). Particularly, I enjoy how the flight, or “leap”, of the nightjar is suggested in the jingling repetitions, “dances and bounces”, and “lightly, silently”: these are the rhymes and rhythms of fluttering wings.

The prose is rich, sonorous, exciting: sibilance and vowel-sounds cascade euphoniously through phrases ...
Even as Baker’s book is driven forward by a particular, intense obsession with the peregrine, it is also an all-encompassing and beautiful vision of British flora and fauna. It is a book of many birds, be it this initial encounter with a nightjar, or woodcocks, curlews, lapwings, skylarks, starlings, moorhens, wagtails, owls (the barn owl and the tawny owl), the sparrowhawk, not to mention the eponymous bird itself. Suffice to say, the book is more multitudinous than the title, The Peregrine, lets on.

Baker also writes intoxicatingly of landscape, although he prefers not to speak of precise locations; it is always “the ford”, “the river”, “the orchard”, or similar. In doing this, Baker can be seen “refusing to yoke the birds to one identifiable locale” (as Mark Cocker notes in his introduction), and this means that the reader can easily imagine the setting of The Peregrine as being their own local landscape. “One part of England is superficially so much like another”, writes Baker, “the differences are subtle, coloured by love”: in this vein, Baker allows his readers to infuse his Essex landscape with the colours of their own private loves and affections.

Author and critic Niko Kristic has suggested that The Peregrine deals with the relationship between the ‘hyper-local’ and the ‘cosmic’. In an insightful commentary, Kristic yields answers that are at once perceptive and rhetorical:

How do we telescope the provincial to the meteorological and climatological? In The Peregrine, it’s basically a single field in Essex, where Baker birdwatched, but also it’s a universe[…] and this registers on the level of diction as well: he’s really clipped and condensed, with quintessential sentences which nonetheless express and expose inner multitudes. The way he plays with scale is dazzling and hypnotic.

...in this vein, Baker allows his readers to infuse his Essex landscape with the colours of their own private loves and affections.
Baker’s birdwatching took place in a compact area of coastal Essex which he traversed solely by bicycle, being unable to drive, and indeed, Baker has achieved something magnificent in transforming this relative “one field in Essex” into a convincing, dramatic, fire-breathing universe. He may have written in “clipped and condensed”, or “quintessential”, language, but in such a way that he approached a kind of cosmic grandeur and immensity, as well as achieving a distinctive, deeply personal voice. We read:

Malham Cove: One of the foremost nesting places for Peregrine Falcons in Yorkshire. Image by Tim Hill from Pixabay
Malham Cove: One of the foremost nesting places for Peregrine Falcons in Yorkshire. Image by Tim Hill from Pixabay
A wrought-iron starkness of leafless trees stands sharply up along the valley skyline. The cold north air, like a lens of ice, transforms and clarifies. Wet ploughlands dark as malt, stubbled with weeds and sodden with water. Gales have taken the last of the leaves. Autumn is thrown down. Winter stands.

The last two sentences, heroically condensed, jut out with proud power. The tone is fierce. The passage as a whole is a strong example of what Baker can do, transforming and clarifying the things he describes with his own “cold north air”, infusing landscapes with his own peculiar intensity and harsh beauty. At times, his prose may share something of the “wrought-iron starkness of leafless tree”, but perhaps it is better described as “sodden”, like the ploughlands, dense and heavy, vivid with imagery and verbally action-packed, frequently clotted with stressed syllables, “stubbled” with exciting, idiosyncratic linguistic textures.

It is notable, in the above excerpt, to hear Baker speaking of a “lens”, given how his book is supercharged with hawk-like vision. Razor-sharp sight galvanises every page. In order to capture the movement of the hawk, Baker may often be said to orchestrate verbal effects comparable to the movement of a film camera, which can track a moving target: “against blue sky, white cloud, blue sky, dark hills, green fields, brown fields”. On one occasion, Baker imagines the peregrine’s perspective, facilitating an exhilarating, dizzying zoom-out:

Looking down, the hawk saw the big orchard beneath him shrink into darky twiggy lines and green strips; saw the dark wood closing together and reaching out across the hills; saw the green and white fields turning to brown; saw the silver line of the brook, and the coiled river slowly uncoiling; saw the whole valley flattening and widening.

On the other hand, the peregrine’s characteristic “stoop” (or swoop) is captured by Baker through a rapid zoom-in: “from a speck to a blur, to a bird, to a hawk, to a peregrine”. The dynamic visual characteristics of The Peregrine are implicit in filmmaker Werner Herzog’s enthusiastic recommendation of the book for young filmmaker’s: “[it is] the one book I would ask you to read if you want to make films”.

Robert MacFarlane, in his afterword to the book, goes as far as to describe The Peregrine as a kind of “augmented reality", so intense is its heightened impression of sight and motion. MacFarlane also speculates that the peregrine, a bird with incredible vision and capable of super-fast speeds, may have served as a kind of imaginative “prosthesis” for Baker, who had very poor vision, and struggled with motion due to severe arthritis. As such, one may be inclined to read The Peregrine as a highly personal book, an individual tale of one man’s specialised attachment to a bird. Indeed, the book has spurred many critics to undertake detective missions around the biographical details of the writer, about whose life, for many years, little was known.

...Werner Herzog’s enthusiastic recommendation of the book for young filmmaker’s: “It is the one book I would ask you to read if you want to make films”.
Yet Baker had serious environmental issues in his sights, and his novel is a protest song as well as an account of his own personal interests. When Kristic remarks that “there’s some serious eco-political fire in there”, it seems likely that he has in mind Baker’s furious incantation: “We are the killers. We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away”. At the time of Baker’s writing, the peregrine was facing the possibility of global extinction due to the toxic effects of organochlorine-based agrochemicals. Moreover, during the second world war peregrines were deemed to pose a serious threat to carrier pigeons, and so were often shot down by RAF bomber crews. Although peregrine populations have, in fact, made a remarkable recovery, Baker’s book remains a powerful account of nature under siege from human actions: “we are the killers” says Baker, not the predatorial peregrines, looking us unflinchingly in the eye.

Peregrine Falcon. Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Peregrine Falcon. Image courtesy of Pixabay.
In the end, the ultimate triumph of the novel resides in Baker’s ability to forge a thoroughly original, brutally beautiful poetic language: his ability to fashion “in the smithy of [his] soul”, an idiosyncratic diction which expresses itself in every utterance in the novel. If Baker was able, in Kristic’s words, to “distil his encounters into their rhetorical quintessence”, then MacFarlane’s postscript records how Baker put together 1600 manuscript pages over many years birdwatching, before, between 1963 and 1966, he “compressed those journals into a book fewer than 60,000 words long”. Macfarlane continues, “the journals were coal to The Peregrine’s diamond: crushed, they became the book”. Baker composted his many notes into a dazzling, tough poetry, where words are often wrenched out of shape: the noun ‘bulk’ becomes an evocative verb in “bulks against the sky”, whilst another noun, ‘gleam’, is imaginatively put to use in the following description, where it seems to mean something like brushed: “quiet sunlight gleamed the falling tide”. Often, Baker’s sentences will fizz with sound-repetitions, as in “the warm west wind blew wet” or “silver woods, snow-rooted bit sharply black into the solid blueness of the sky”. Alliterative monosyllabic phrases like “warm west wind”, and consonantal coinages like “bit sharply black”, snagging like thickets, are brilliantly engineered.

There is often an impression of muscularity, a brawniness, in Baker’s writing which betrays the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I am reminded of how Hopkins wrestles with words in his great poem ‘Carrion Comfort’:

Not untwist – slack they may be – these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be

The Peregrine cannot be recommended without a note of caution: “It’s best read in small doses, because it can tire you out
"David Sonstroem catches the gist of what Hopkins is doing when he describes the poet’s tendency to progress “incrementally, torturously, along archipelagos of sound”. There is a comparable sense of straining, and an emphasis on sound-effects, in Baker’s prose, although it would be remiss to understate the sheer originality of Baker’s achievements. Many of Baker’s descriptions are idiosyncratic: a found skull sports a “serrated prehistoric grin”, whilst a male peregrine (a tiercel), at a certain angle, may be said to resemble “a huge, inverted, golden pear”. It is hard to think of any parallel elsewhere in literature for Baker’s description of a yellow-billed blackbird as “a small mad puritan with a banana in his mouth”, or the teeth of a beached porpoise as “the zip-fastener of a gruesome nightdress case”. There is something deeply weird, hyper-intense, and truly one-of-a-kind in Baker’s writing. Kristic puts it well when he describes The Peregrine as “a spore-print of one man’s consciousness”: vitally, wildly, fiercely original.

The Peregrine cannot be recommended without a note of caution: “It’s best read in small doses, because it can tire you out", Kristic acknowledges, continuing, “there’s a non-trivial element of physical exertion, which puts you in the position of the birdwatcher”. This is a book which is fiery and bold, and by this token it is not always easy reading, yet The Peregrine is phenomenally rich and unceasingly beautiful. Moreover, it is a book of the current season, in so far as it is set across a single winter, but also because it is a book that speaks powerfully to the subject of environmental crisis, and it shows a keen awareness of the role of mankind in nature. The Peregrine is a fizzing, energetic novel about the wild. It helps us see the world around us with blazing vision at the same time as it may bewilder and astonish us. The opening line of the chapter entitled ‘Peregrines’ is as fitting as it is enigmatic: “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there”.

The Peregrine – 50th Anniversary Edition, With an Afterword by Robert MacFarlane is published by Harper Collins.