I’ve seen through the eyes of a bird, and been shaken to the core. I’ve just read The Peregrine by JA Baker, one of the great texts of modern nature writing. There are many bodies in this book – countless peregrines and their violent kills, Baker himself, and the effect on my own body of reading it. Baker’s biographer Hetty Saunders says ‘he strove in his writing to inhabit the falcon’s body – to see through its own eyes, feel through its body’. And his physical difficulties – the chronic inflammatory condition ankylosing spondylitis coupled with extreme short sight – had a bearing on what and how he wrote.
First, the background. The slim volume was published in 1967, won a literary prize and went in and out of print. It has caught hold of writers, campaigners, birders and general readers, and in recent years has been championed by writer Robert Macfarlane among others. He calls it ‘landscape on acid’. Film director Werner Herzog says it’s a must for aspiring film directors, yet regards it as unfilmable. On paper it’s a meticulous diary of one winter’s observations of peregrines around the Blackwater Estuary in Essex. In reality it’s a composite of ten years’ obsessive birdwatching from 1954 to 1964 compressed tightly into six months. It’s fact and poetry combined.
The bird he had in his sights –“that crossbow flinging through the air” – is a supreme hunter, ‘stooping’ from the sky to snatch its victims at well over a hundred miles an hour. Pesticide use (especially DDT) was rife when Baker was writing and peregrines at the top of the food chain absorbed more than most. Their eggshells weakened, breeding reduced and extinction was close. Baker documents his questing pursuit of the peregrine, using dense visceral prose to shake us awake to the vicious reality of nature and humankind.
Time after time he produces word pictures of flight and pursuit, with rapid and fatal movement in the sky. In his entry for 20 December a line of mallards comes into view:
“Looking up at them through binoculars, I see for the first time a falcon peregrine circling very high, beating and gliding in the fading light. She stoops, dilates like a pupil of an eye as it passes from day’s brilliance into dusk. She is the size of a lark, then of a jay, now of a crow, now of a mallard. Mallard spray outwards and climb as she dives between them. She bends up through the sky again, curves under and up with the momentum of her stoop, crashes into a mallard, bursts it into a drift of feathers. Grappled together, they glide above the wood, then sweep down to the frosted ride. Mallard fly along the line of the wood towards the lake. Nothing has changed, though one is gone.”
He creates movement and dynamism through an intense stew of verbs and metaphors. It’s exhilarating and addictive, yet stark and indigestible. I can only stomach it in short bursts. From my Alexander perspective he’s overly obsessive, too much of an ‘end-gainer’, concentrating exclusively on sighting the peregrine and pinning it down in prose. But it’s his restricted and singular focus that gives the book its furious power.
In some ways Baker’s body is barely present in the book, and he remains mysterious as a narrator. Away from the page he was until recently an elusive figure. However the Baker archives are now more complete and his life is better understood after the biography My House of Sky was published earlier this year. He effaces himself in his writing, yet his body caused him pain and difficulty. The fusing joints from his inflammatory condition meant he couldn’t use his fingers easily, nor could he range as freely outdoors as he wanted. His severe myopia affected what he saw, so binoculars were critical. Despite all this, he pursued and described his quarry. Shaman-like, he almost turned into one of the most visually acute, powerfully explosive and mobile birds of all.
“Hawk-hunting sharpens vision. Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the oblique axe cuts to the heart of a tree. A vivid sense of place grows like another limb.”
I’ve had my copy of The Peregrine for some years and it remained unread until last week. I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages. Every time I picked it up, another bloody kill made me put it back down. But something has shifted in me. I’m more stable now in my body, more comfortable in my skin. The Peregrine might ruffle my feathers, but it won’t knock me out of the sky.
I started by saying I’ve been shaken to the core by reading the book. Yes, it has changed my perception of the natural world and my place in it. I am shaken – but still standing. In the past I was more easily pushed off balance and somehow I seemed to absorb it physically. Now after six years of Alexander lessons, and nearly two years of more intense training to be an Alexander teacher, I’ve found an inner stability and a deeper resilience in myself. I’m more able to deal with whatever comes along. Read The Peregrine if you haven’t already. It’s a strong and heady brew, so be sure your body is up to it.
Photos from the exhibition ‘Natural Selection’ by Andy Holden & Peter Holden. The eggs are porcelain replicas, made by artist Andy Holden, of a hoard of 7130 illegally collected birds’ eggs, found by the police in a raid in 2006.
You may also be interested in a previous post on The Hunting Season