The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. NYRB Classics. 208pp, $15.95.
Last winter I was walking past the “Nature” section of a bookstore when a thin NYRB Classic caught my attention. “J.A. Baker The Peregrine,” it said. I know little about birds, but for some reason I stopped and picked it up. Turning to the first page, I read:
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 towards 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 towards them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.
So began my introduction to Baker’s Essex, which, though pleasant-looking, is no Lake District. The Peregrine makes it otherwise. Baker dedicates to this land an imagination that is foil and febrile kin to Wordsworth’s genius. His prose has a sheer disorienting power: the words of a place raised out of time yet shaped through historical time. The uncertainty of wildness is at its center, bound to a persistent human namelessness that hangs on the fringes: “As so often on spring evenings, no birds sing near me, while all the distant trees and bushes ring with song. Like all human beings, I seem to walk within a hoop of red-hot iron, a hundred yards across, that sears away all life. When I stand still, it cools, and slowly disappears.” Such prose slips the reader out of the here-and-now and into a middle position between the narrator’s searing hoop and a mirage of vitality.
Not much is known about the person who wrote of the joys and pains of this circumscribed condition, this man who saw himself as chained to his own life-repelling life. The biographical facts that have been established do little to diminish the myth that has formed around his life and work: he was born and lived in Essex, he was married and doesn’t seem to have had children, he worked at the Automobile Association but never learned to drive, he got around on foot and bicycle; later in life he worked at the soda company Britvic, he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and died of cancer. More details, especially about Baker’s early life, have been collected in recent years through interviews with a few close friends. This fall the first biography of him will be published. The Peregrine originally came out in 1967 and won the Duff Cooper Prize for nonfiction in 1968. Since then it’s been enthusiastically praised by Robert Macfarlane, Andrew Motion, Barry Lopez, and Werner Herzog. We don’t know what relationships Baker had to other writers, or editors and publishers, but they were probably minimal. He wrote only one other book, The Hill of Summer, published in 1969. When he died in 1987 he was hardly a public figure.
The legend of The Peregrine has continued to grow, and the man who wrote so memorably about the desire to disappear has now passed under his book’s concave shadow. What wasn’t fully possible in life has become possible in death: “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. Wandering flushes a glory that fades with arrival.” Spoken like a true wayfarer, a pilgrim.
Baker tells us that he followed peregrines for ten years, and that his book is the record of one season’s pursuit, lasting October to April. In fact his book is a compression of ten years of experience and observation into a focused period of mystical journeying toward the outward edge of things. It’s a quest poem in prose, but lacking the human-centered incidents typical of quest poems and fiction, and with an unusual reticence. Not only does the narrator say nothing about his life or his past, he also abstains from the contemplative involvement of, say, the narrator in Walden. He is shorn of biography, austere like Wallace Stevens’s snow man: moving through isolation, stopping for long periods to observe what occurs apart from him, aware of the breath that leaves the heat of his body for the cold of the land. The action, so to speak, emerges around the falcon and Baker’s dogged pursuit of it. When he provides rare self-portraits of himself as pursuer, he appears like one of the slinking creaturely specters of Beckett’s fiction: “I crept towards them along a dry ditch, inching forward like the tide. I crawled across stubble and dry plough.” He aims to achieve alarm-dissipating invisibility: “Hood the glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting face, assume the stillness of a tree.”
If this is a grail poem, though, why does Baker chase the falcon? It’s not to capture or tame it, and certainly not to kill it. He wishes to join it, but even in moments of greatest identification, when his language shifts from metaphor and longing into consummation, it isn’t long before the dream of union breaks up: “I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk…Like the hawk, I heard and hated the sound of man, that faceless horror of the stony places. I stifled in the same filthy sack of fear. I shared the same hunter’s longing for the wild home none can know, alone with the sight and smell of the quarry, under the indifferent sky…I sank down and slept into the feather-light sleep of the hawk. Then I woke him with my waking.” His imagination takes him far into the life of the bird, but of course he can never deliver himself from the limits of his human consciousness. And so the unspoken concession running through the book is that his query can be no more than repeated and prolonged observation of the bird in all the changes of its existence. This is also an imperative task: the bird of power and grace is dying.
During the years of Baker’s venturing in the Essex countryside, the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s, falcons were declining rapidly due to farm pesticides. A sense of irremediable loss is felt in what he sees (at the time Baker had no reason to predict the recovery that has since occurred among falcon populations in southern England). His vantage is retrospective, his outlook grim, the mood elegiac: “The long pursuit is over. 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…It is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still.” Mortality is like a banner over the daily intrigues of hunting, bathing, resting, flying: it is the inescapable decree of this world. The future is foregone: “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 birds are like little King Arthurs, even if what makes them noble is a peculiar form of rapacity.
The Peregrine is more than an elegy for these particular beloved birds—it’s also a pastoral elegy on a grand scale, rendered in the guise of field notes: the bird’s imminent destruction isn’t considered anomalous but seen instead as a local manifestation of continuous, ever-present loss. The Essex of Baker’s mind is occasionally comic, frequently exalted and exalting, ideal, merciless, cruel. Brightness and fear are repeated among creatures throughout the land. Their days are pleasant, spared the troubles of human thought, but for many of them the idle hours of hunting and hiding build to an abrupt, violent end. About the thrush, Thomas Hardy’s famous herald of inscrutable hope, Baker warns: “We should not sentimentalise his song, and forget the killing that sustains it.” Et in Arcadia ego. “A day of blood; sun, snow, and blood.” “Blood looked black in the dusk, bare bones white as a grin of teeth. A hawk’s kill is like the warm embers of a dying fire.” “When I lifted the soft damp body, the long wings fell out like fans. The crows had not yet taken the lovely river-shining of its eyes.” Baker follows his vision far beyond a journeyman’s recording of nature’s mundane gore, into rapturous, virtuosic set pieces:
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 the sky. His body was still and rigid, his head turned from side to side, his tail fanned open and shut, his wings whipped and shuddered like canvas in the lash of the wind. He side-slipped to his left, paused, then glided round and down into what could only be the beginning of a tremendous stoop. There is no mistaking the menace of that first easy drifting fall. Smoothly, at an angle of fifty degrees, he descended; not slowly, but controlling his speed; gracefully, beautifully balanced. There was no abrupt change. The angle of his fall became gradually steeper till there was no angle left, but only a perfect arc. He curved over and slowly revolved, as though for delight, glorying in anticipation of the dive to come. 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 feel sheer, shimmering down through 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 immense fan-vaulting of his flight, was consumed and lost in the fiery maelstrom of the sky.
And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending—hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and snow filling the bill’s wide silent scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk’s beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away.
And for the hawk, resting now on the soft flaccid bulk of his prey, there was the rip and tear of choking feathers, and hot blood dripping from the hook of the beak, and rage dying slowly to a small hard core within.
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.
There’s glory in that passage, and beneath the glory, though he’s called himself “the guiltless hunter,” it’s possible to make out the pulse of guilt, which ripples into grief. For all the awe, all the tribute to grace and prowess in such scenes, every kill is a reminder of the expulsion from Eden and history’s long intractable confusion, of the natural fact that existence has reinforced and been determined by alienation and blood. Foreboding creeps back. Baker’s words bear an unshakeable recoiling impulse. The day of sun, snow, and blood referred to above ends with this observation: “Nothing is as beautifully, richly red as flowing blood on snow. It is strange that the eye can love what mind and body hate.” And that passage about the intact “lovely river-shining eyes”? It concludes: “This handling of the dead left a taint upon the splendour of the day, which ended in a quiet desolation of cloud as the wind fell and the sun passed down.”
The further we get into the book, the more urgent Baker’s desire to join the falcon in its dream of wild existence. He remains notably restrained—the growing urgency is relative. But unmistakably, the sense of being cut off sharpens. He becomes more explicit in his alienation from human society, sometimes bordering on misanthropy. In its echoes of immemorial loss, the writing resembles the plaintive voices that tear at landscape in traditional pastoral elegies. However, Baker’s prose is the subdued version of those voices, evoking the two speakers of Sidney’s “Ye goatherd gods” while also serving as their counter, a model of disciplined, limited confession in place of their hectic exaggeration. There is great sorrow behind the lines, “It is a good life, a seal’s, here in these shallow waters. Like the lives of so many air and water creatures, it seems a better one than ours. We have no element. Nothing sustains us when we fall.” Without any personal details, it’s a full personal history. At once the passage reflects collective experience and concisely reveals the speaker’s suffering.
Out of this profound alienation—the intense imagining of impossible union with a life of power and grace, and the resulting consignment to the devotional labors of communion—come the book’s extreme visions of beauty. It’s hard to imagine them formed in a mind more at ease. Baker’s prose invites comparisons to many writers, but is ultimately, in the final assemblage, like none of them. He is enraptured like Woolf in her essays of exaltation: “The shining mauve and silver woods, snow-rooted, bit sharply black into the solid blueness of the sky.” “A wave of turquoise froze into a kingfisher standing on a stone, then broke, and flowed away round a bend of the stream.” He has the Anglo-Saxon sounds of Hopkins: “…the feathered bloodstain in the woodland ride.” “Gluttonous, hoarding jay; he should have hedge-hopped and lurched from tree to tree…” And he is like Proust watching the steeples of Martinville turn in the sky: “Woods floated clear along the ridge.” “Distance moves through the dim lines of the inland elms, and comes closer, and gathers behind the darkness of the hawk.” This last sentence is like the book in miniature: not something moves in the distance, but distance itself, that abstract but palpable thing, moves.
The idea, which occurs at the end of the narrative, gestures back toward one of its opening images: “Hill trees mass together in a dark-spired forest, but when I move towards 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.” Space and motion have been ecstatically recomposed. As in any great poem of pilgrimage, a spontaneous world of vision rises up around the wayfaring devotee with every step. Baker began by telling us that “the hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” and in the pages that follow he shows us what is there in confounding, paradoxical language: “the red-gold burnish of his plumage glowing into dimness.” “The peregrine sank up into the blue depths.” “A green woodpecker flew ahead . . . sinking into heavy flight.” The “river light of the estuary” dissolves into “the bleaker brightness of the sea.” When Baker tells us that “the most exciting thing about a hawk is the way in which it can create life from the still earth by conjuring flocks of birds into the air,” he’s giving us the standard for his book. Remaking language, he remakes the world: he restores to its full strange extent the phenomena of life, of movement, of sound and vision, waking them out of the stillness of mundane acquaintance in vivid patterns above our disappointed human life. His book is a religious plaint and tribute, at times cold, at times bitter, but a work of prayer, an expression of insatiable desire not for violence or power but disappearance, which, given the dominant forces of our history, is in its way an admirable longing. Even without knowing much about him, we can assume that, like most of us, J.A. Baker wasn’t a saint. But he was without a doubt a poet. In writing The Peregrine, he renewed the world without giving it impure polish, and does so every time someone reads his book.
Previous writing by Adam Kosan has appeared in Prelude online.
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