Is This The Best Book Ever Written About A Bird?

The Peregrine by JA BakerIn my opinion The Peregrine written by J.A.Baker is the best book ever written about a bird.

For years I tried to get the Natural History Unit at BBC Bristol to finance my attempt to film it. In 2008 the project nearly got off the ground but was cancelled at the last minute, one of the funders pulled out. Famous wildlife cameramen, Simon King and Hugh Miles, were similarly obsessed with the book and wanted to film it.

Baker’s book is set in the period 1955-1960 during which Peregrine Falcons in southern England had been catastrophically wiped out by the effects of the pesticides used in farming. A solitary figure – Baker – follows the day-to-day activities of a Peregrine, a migrant from Scandinavia, which is over-wintering on an estuary in Essex. A simple story you might think. Baker writes: In my diary of a single winter I have tried to preserve a unity, binding together the bird, the watcher and the place that holds them both. What lifts it up and transforms it into a masterpiece is the conjunction of words in his descriptions of the Peregrines hunting life.

Baker on the falcon attacking a flock of Dunlin: With a sudden stab down he was clear of the swirl and chasing a solitary dunlin up into sky. The dunlin seemed to come back slowly to the hawk. It passed into his dark outline, and did not re-appear.

He becomes so obsessed with the bird that, like a Shamanic shape-shifter, he tries to transform himself into a Peregrine. I found myself crouching over the kill like a mantling falcon. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of the falcon, as in some primitive ritual, the hunter becomes the thing he hunts.

Baker died in 1987, so sadly I never met him. However, I was lucky enough to meet his widow, Doreen. She obviously trusted me because she let me have a chapter of Baker’s journals covering the period when he was watching the Peregrine. I knew Robert Macfarlane would be interested and he invited me to have lunch with him at his college, Emmanuel, in Cambridge so that he could peruse the journals. It was a satisfactory visit for it ensured the journals would be lodged at the University of Essex at Colchester. All of which neatly leads me into a review of Robert’s new book Landmarks.

Landmarks, according to the publisher’s blurb, is a celebration of language and landscape. It offers us a fresh ways of experiencing the natural world, and allows us to glimpse through other eyes – quickening our sense of wonder and sharpening our sight. There are twelve chapters on landscapes in the British Isles from the mountains in the north of Scotland to the wide open landscapes of the Essex marshes. Each chapter includes a glossary on forgotten, descriptive, words applying to that landscape.

My interest quickly homed in on the chapter on the Hunting Life as described by J.A.Baker in his solitary pursuit of a migrant Peregrine Falcon on the Essex coastline.

On his way to view the collection of Baker’s papers housed at The University of Essex Robert, quite by chance, sees a Peregrine stoop and knock down a Wood pigeon. He’d seen all the common birds of prey frequenting this place but never a Peregrine. He describes this happening in three different ways from florid, prose poetry through to a minimalist statement of fact.

Robert opened the journals and saw how Baker’s writing evolved. 21st March 1954. Partridge in the meadows opposite a church on ‘Patching Hall Lane’, in ‘long’, ‘rich’ grass. Six months later, Baker changed gear dramatically. Saturday November 20th 1954. Great SE/SW gales each night, Rooks were swept from home to roost on immense waves of wind, thrown like burnt paper, very high, revellers in the wind.

At last, Baker sees a Peregrine. This becomes his Holy Grail, the subject of his book. Wherever he goes this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.

I know I have concentrated on Baker to the exclusion of other chapters. I make no apology for that. Landmarks an excellent read, crammed full of words describing landscapes, long since forgotten, and now polished up for us to use and remember.