The beauty of death

The Peregrine, J.A. Baker, New York Review of Books (reprint) 9781590171332.

Peregrine

Visceral ornithology at its very best, a classic of nature writing that has inspired many of today’s countryside authors, this is a book that scatters blood and broken feathers across every page, sometimes every paragraph. Baker was writing in the sixties, just after Rachel Carson’s prophetic Silent Spring and while the effects of DDT were still moving through the food chain, slashing the health and numbers of all farmland habitat species from the very bottom to the pinnacle predators like the peregrine.

Baker was a man with his own troubles in life – they bubble away in the background of his writing but he never voices them. Instead he obsessively follows wintering peregrine falcons for a season over an unidentified stretch of Essex coastline. His passion is total, his revulsion for the crassness of bumbling, wantonly destructive humanity is barely concealed as he strives to shake off his alien humanness and become just another part of the landscape.

His writing has a descriptive power that I have seldom experienced, he uses language in fresh and colourful ways, paradoxical images abound yet each gets you feeling more and more that you are there in amongst the flocks of knot and curlew, another heart beating with vitality but no self-consciousness, another feather coated breeding machine that is simply a tiny part in the great project of nature.

Peregrines are built to kill. It is their nature, their destiny, their reason for being. Only successful hunters survive to breed. Baker never lets you forget this, but at the same time he colours in the land around the predator with such vivacity, such explosive virtuosity that every wren in the undergrowth, every seed-head on a thistle becomes an elemental force of life.

Robert Macfarlane wrote the foreword, with much reverence, glee and relish. I had read Macfarlane’s own Landmarks last year and his debt to Baker was written large across every page. Landmarks is a fascinating look at our historic connection with the individuality of the land in our locality, at the vast network of language we created over many centuries to help us navigate, propagate and survive this land and how our urbanisation and consequent disconnection with the muck and mulch of geography means that many precious and site specific words are sliding into oblivion. Macfarlane provides list after list of these words throughout his book, Baker just uses language as a scimitar to slice open the very essence of each leaf, each bird, each mammal, each hill and tussock, cliff, field and mudflat.

Throughout the whole book Baker is there, we walk with him every day on his hunt for the hunter. But we never get to know him – the focus is always on the birds.  Helen Macdonald, in H is for Hawk, which I also read last year, also pays open tribute to Baker. But her book is a very different beast. The goshawk she joins with to train is altogether a weightier creature than Baker’s peregrines and Macdonald’s presence is also far more dense and looming. H is for Hawk is as much about Macdonald’s trying to come to terms with the death of her father as it is about her relationship with the hawk. Baker never lets introspection get in the way of the fire of his observation. Macdonald lives in a world lit by charcoal, a dull glow of grief so utterly pervades the book that I found it hard to read and much harder to enjoy.

At the end of the day there may be lacunae and misdirection in some of Baker’s observations but this is one of the best books I have ever read for the sheer over-ripe beauty of its prose and the utterly unsentimental yet vertiginous passion for its subject.

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