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.
The Peregrine is one of the most affecting and remarkable books that I have read in a long time. It is a unique piece of literature that deftly avoids generic categorisation, containing some of the finest prose written in the English language.
The Peregrine (first published 1967) was authored by the somewhat obscure Essex writer J.A.Baker, who in his lifetime only published one other book (The Hill of Summer, 1969) and until recently languished in obscurity before his reputation as a writer was brought back into the spotlight by such contemporary nature writers as Mark Cocker and Robert MacFarlane, and poets such as Kathleen Jamie.
It was, in fact, through reading Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful collection of essays, Findings, that I first came across the name of J.A. Baker and this intriguing book. I obtained a copy of the New York Review of Books reprint, with an excellent introductory essay by Robert MacFarlane, but even that was not enough to quite prepare me for what was to follow.
I have an interest in birds and wildlife – my father is a keen birdwatcher and as such have been to many of the more beautiful and remote parts of the United Kingdom as a child, something I am much more grateful for now that I am an adult – and as such even a simple account of the peregrine falcon would hold some small interest for me (though I have never seen one in the flesh). However, I am wary of the genre of nature writing, especially in a British context, as it can veer into the parochial, the provincial and the sentimental, too twee and bumbling for my liking; a kind of yearning for a Wind in the Willows world that the moneyed classes did a lot themselves to destroy, even as they scorn the city dwellers and the perceived ‘disconnect’ from nature.
As I grew older, my interest in nature and the natural world became to be greatly informed by the flipside of this established British approach to nature, soundtracked and indelibly stained by the militant animal rights songs of British punk bands like Conflict and the Subhumans. I have had friends who are Hunt Sabotuers, and like myself, many of my peers are either committed vegetarians or vegans. This perspective, very much a ‘bottom up’ working class view of nature and ecology greatly colours my thinking on such matters. This is why, for example, despite many positive qualities, I greatly dislike the work of Roger Deakin, coming as it does from a position (in my eyes at least) of unquestioned privilege that I find very galling to read.
In a literary sense, especially since the birth of the publishing company I co-run, Influx Press, there has been a clear focus on what we want to do – our remit is to be publish site-specific fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction, a kind of micro-focus on the surroundings of the writer. In an increasingly globalised world and culture, the need to become specific becomes ever more pressing.
So how does this relate to Baker’s The Peregrine? The book has been such a revelation to me as it has clearly mapped out a style of writing that I greatly admire and that I have been striving to achieve in my own fiction. Which isn’t to say that this book is fiction at all, in fact it is marketed as non-fiction nature writing, but that to me seems a vast understatement as to what this book is about.
For a start, the book is by Baker’s own admission the distillation of ten years worth of experiences out in the countryside around the then rural village of Chelmsford in Essex, tracking with a burning obsession that elusive and beautiful bird of prey, the peregrine falcon. At the time it must be remembered that due to the use of new agricultural pesticides the peregrine was at a very real risk of becoming extinct worldwide, thankfully a trend that has been reversed remarkably in the intervening years between the publication of the book and now.
Baker, despite focusing on an intensely specific area of the British countryside, employs a defamiliarising effect of eschewing the names of geographical locations, only referring to the ‘North Wood’ the ‘South Wood’, the ford, and so on. As well as this,
there is a dislocation of the ‘I’ narrator by giving him no background, no personal details, no name even, stripping away much of the ego of the author even whilst creating incantatory subjective prose, some of the greatest writing you are ever likely to read in the English language. It’s a neat trick, somehow utterly site-specific and universal, intensely personal hyper-charged prose from a disembodied first-person narrator we know nothing about. Put in the context of the late nineteen sixties when this was written, with the peregrines dying out and destruction of the countryside going on wholesale, there is also very much an elegiac tone here. Take for example the following passage:
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.
With its extremely limited geographical focus that has later spoken to later generations of green movements, there have been comparisons made with the nineteenth century peasant poet John Clare (the idea of a kind of self-taught natural literary visionary), and of the poetry of Ted Hughes. In fact, so dense and charged is Baker’s prose that it often reads more like poetry rather than any traditional notion of prose nature writing, a shifting wordscape where verbs become adjectives, nouns become verbs, adjectives into nouns, creating a new language out of the seemingly mundane Essex countryside.
The book is also profoundly unsentimental about the nature it observes; no attempt is made to flinch from the grisly aspect of the peregrine’s nature as hunter, its kills and the bloodied remains rendered in beautiful stark imagery – gutted wood pigeons, the desiccated carcasses of curlew rotting on the Essex coast, bloody smears across the plumage of a black headed gull.
We have the knowledge that this eulogy for a near-extinct bird is no longer valid, something I like to think that writing like this contributed to. No dewy eyed exercise in nostalgia or lament for a lost world (despite the touches of misanthropy that creep into even the best writing of this genre), more a passionate cry to see what beauty still exists in the world, even in the damp fields of Britain.
Baker says in his introduction:
It is so easy to love the dead.
We on the other hand have a tougher problem. How to love what we still, tenuously, have.
NB: If anyone is interested, the best edition to pick up is Collins' 'Complete Works of J.A. Baker', which includes 'The Peregrine', 'The Hill of Summer', his edited diaries and an essay written for the RSPB in the 1970s.