A soar­ing na­ture clas­sic

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY HILARY A WHITE

‘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.”

No di­a­logue. No plot. Noth­ing re­ally hap­pens. And yet JA Baker’s The Pere­grine, half a cen­tury young last year, has be­come an enigma of the English lan­guage whose cult seems to swell that tiny bit more with each pass­ing spring. New­com­ers are handed copies by froth­ing con­verts and are duly felled. And on it goes.

Since its pub­li­ca­tion in 1967, its woozy pros­e­po­etry has be­witched read­ers of many hues, from bird­watch­ers and wildlife en­thu­si­asts to na­ture-writ­ing stu­dents, crime nov­el­ists, po­ets, film-makers and the lit­er­ary elite it­self.

On the face of it, it looks like a slim and simple vol­ume of painterly field jour­nals. Its prin­ci­pal fo­cus is one of the sex­ier species in or­nithol­ogy, an animal that has lent it­self to ev­ery­thing from the faces of an­cient Egyp­tian gods to travel-agency lo­gos. A blue­print for fighter jets and an em­blem for sport­ing teams alike. Baker was not the first nor in­deed the last to place this species on a lofty pedestal.

But birds and bird­ing are only part of the pic­ture in a book that, as na­ture-writ­ing doyen and Baker dis­ci­ple Robert Macfar­lane puts it, still some­how “locks on to its read­ers, and they pass in­vol­un­tar­ily into it”.

Lit­tle was known about its au­thor un­til very re­cently, a fac­tor that hasn’t hurt the book’s near-mythic sta­tus over its half-cen­tury ex­is­tence. De­spite The Pere­grine winning the Duff Cooper Memo­rial Prize in 1967, as well as be­ing the York­shire Post’s Book of the Year, Baker was fiercely shy of the at­ten­tion these ac­co­lades gar­nered.

A Sun­day Times pro­file of the day read: “John Baker is 40 and lives in a coun­cil flat in Es­sex. He doesn’t want it known which town. He doesn’t want his neigh­bours to know what he does. He hasn’t got a TV or a phone. He never goes any­where so­cially and the last time he went out to be en­ter­tained was 12 years ago when he went to the pic­tures to see Shane.” You get the idea.

With the 30th an­niver­sary of his death on St Stephen’s Day, 1987, hav­ing just passed, a new bi­og­ra­phy has emerged fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery in 2013 of a trove of diaries, manuscripts, pho­tos, let­ters and note­books. My House of Sky: The Life and Work of JA Baker sees bi­og­ra­pher Hetty Saun­ders at last add flesh to

the most mythol­o­gised na­ture writer of the 20th cen­tury.

Born in 1926 in Es­sex, John Alec Baker was so my­opic that he needed thick glasses from an early age and was even ex­cused from wartime na­tional ser­vice. With his friends away serv­ing, his unset­tled, in­tro­vert na­ture and trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with his au­thor­i­tar­ian fa­ther re­sulted in bouts of de­pres­sion and neu­ro­sis, one of which led to in­sti­tu­tional care in his late teens.

Se­vere arthri­tis would take a greater toll on his life, how­ever, re­strict­ing his move­ment be­fore med­i­ca­tion taken to man­age the con­di­tion caused ter­mi­nal can­cer to de­velop.

Af­ter be­ing in­tro­duced to bird-watch­ing by a col­league at his job in the Au­to­mo­bile As­so­ci­a­tion (Baker didn’t drive, in­ci­den­tally), an ob­ses­sion sprouted that would see all his free time spent cy­cling and walk­ing the lo­cal fields and coast­line with binoc­u­lars, grad­u­ally nar­row­ing his crosshairs over the bul­let head and scythe wings of the pere­grine fal­con.

He was hunting the hunters, and be­tween its pro­ce­dural de­tail and the de­tec­tive’s grow­ing ob­ses­sion with an elu­sive se­rial killer, it’s not hard to see why The Pere­grine has also been likened to a crime saga that counts emer­ald noir doyens such as Adrian McKinty and De­clan Burke among its fans.

It is widely ac­cepted that Baker’s ob­ses­sion was born not strictly out of want­ing to merely ob­serve the fal­con but to be the fal­con.

“I watched him with long­ing, as though he were re­flect­ing down to me his bril­liant un­re­garded vi­sion of the land be­yond the hill,” Baker re­ports with al­most tran­scen­den­tal headi­ness dur­ing one sight­ing. “I be­came aware of my own weight, as though I had been float­ing upon wa­ter and was now beached and dry and clothed and in­glo­ri­ous.”

Else­where, the sen­sa­tion starts to co­ag­u­late: “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 stony places . . . I felt the same strange yearn­ing to be gone.”

The trans­for­ma­tive ef­fect heats up even fur­ther in the fol­low­ing ex­tract: “I found my­self crouch­ing over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walk­ing heads of men. Un­con­sciously I was im­i­tat­ing the move­ments of a hawk, as in some prim­i­tive rit­ual; the hunter be­com­ing the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the pere­grine was crouch­ing, watch­ing me, grip­ping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fear­ful life. We shun men. We hate their sud­denly up­lifted arms, the insanity of their flail­ing ges­tures, their er­ratic scis­sor­ing gait, their aim­less stum­bling ways, the tomb­stone white­ness of their faces.”

Spir­i­tual ex­is­tence

We, we, we. Note that Baker’s rap­tor is “grip­ping the neck” of a dead ob­ject, and his use of words like “tomb­stone” and “scis­sor­ing” in ref­er­ence to man. This sug­gests some­one with a dark and dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship with their own cor­po­real and spir­i­tual ex­is­tence.

These glimpses seem to erupt help­lessly and force­fully through­out Baker’s text, all of them hint­ing at a man who wished to dis­in­te­grate into the fal­cons’ di­men­sion. Pere­grines not only have eye­sight far be­yond our com­pre­hen­sion, but their aerial mas­tery and record-break­ing speeds make them uni­ver­sally ex­alted. The mil­len­nia-old art of fal­conry is struc­tured upon this idol­a­try. They were ev­ery­thing he, with his short-sight­ed­ness and ail­ing mo­bil­ity, was not and, thus, totemic.

“You can­not know what free­dom means un­til you have seen a pere­grine loosed into the warm

spring sky to roam at will through all the far prov­inces of light,” he sighs en­vi­ously at one point.

This thick­en­ing broth of dark vi­car­i­ous­ness, cou­pled with the time-stop­ping en­er­gies of its lan­guage, are for many the voodoo of The Pere­grine.

“It has prose of the cal­i­bre that we have not seen since Joseph Conrad,” ar­gues Ger­man au­teur Werner Her­zog of a book that he in­sists ev­ery film stu­dent read. “And an ec­stasy, a deliri­ous sort of love for what he ob­serves. In a way, it’s al­most like a tran­sub­stan­ti­a­tion, like in re­li­gion, where the observer be­comes al­most the ob­ject.”

Just as Moby-Dick has emerged as a favourite of Baker him­self, Her­zog has al­ways been drawn to sto­ries of ob­ses­sive fig­ures ven­tur­ing forth into the wilder­ness in search of all-con­sum­ing holy grails – opera houses, lost cities of gold, Alaskan bears, and, in the case of The Pere­grine, a man wholly con­sumed by wild fal­cons win­ter­ing near a lo­cal es­tu­ary.

Gal­way poet Sharon Blackie feels it “re­flects that mys­te­ri­ous ten­sion be­tween kin­ship and oth­er­ness” when we think of our re­la­tion­ship with an­i­mals. “The pere­grine is so pro­foundly ‘other’ to him, and yet he iden­ti­fies so strongly with it he al­most be­comes it.”

When I con­tacted Booker-winning au­thor John Banville, he chimed with Blackie’s as­ser­tion about the text’s al­chem­i­cal pow­ers, say­ing: “The philoso­pher Thomas Nagel fa­mously as­serted that we can­not know what it is like to be a bat. The Pere­grine re­futes him: we come as close as hu­manly pos­si­ble to the ex­pe­ri­ence of what it is to be a winged crea­ture seem­ingly ut­terly un­like us and yet, in Baker’s pages, en­tirely know­able, though only on its own terms.”

Baker went as far as to study RAF and Luft­waffe aerial maps to en­sure a fal­con’s-eye per­spec­tive of his home range but he also un­der­stood that land­scapes emit­ted fre­quen­cies and en­er­gies that must also make it into any de­pic­tion. One un­likely ref­er­ence that has emerged in his cor­re­spon­dence is a love for JM Synge’s The Aran Is­lands, say­ing that “it was Aran that cra­dled his [Synge’s] lovely, ca­denced phrase­ol­ogy” and “for me, they [the Aran Is­lands] will be a point of pil­grim­age in my jour­ney­ing through the coun­tries of the mind”.

Po­ets have lauded the hyp­notic, ki­netic style Baker evolved dur­ing his end­less nights con­dens­ing and re­fin­ing his field notes into book shape. The Dublin writer Der­mot Bol­ger notes the lan­guage’s abil­ity to be “sen­su­ously and sin­u­ously lyri­cal about na­ture while be­ing un­flinch­ingly in the cruel re­al­ties that un­der­pin the pere­grine’s world”.

This lyri­cism and its dis­card­ing of “the usual com­fort­ing pas­toral” has in­spired H Is for Hawk au­thor He­len Mac­don­ald. How­ever, she also at­tests to find­ing it an un­nerv­ing read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “Baker writes like an an­gel,” she told me, “but al­ways the an­gel of death. No com­mu­nity and lit­tle hu­man warmth ex­ist in its pages. Baker wrote it as if he were the last man on Earth and the pere­grines he watched air­borne revenants, lost and los­ing souls.”

Ex­tinc­tion threats

Mac­don­ald here un­earths some­thing that un­der­lies the very DNA of The Pere­grine –ifi­tis a beau­ti­ful book then it is, as Yeats (an­other user of fal­con im­agery) put it, a ter­ri­ble beauty, one filled with bril­liantly crim­son blood, glis­ten­ing corpses and ex­tinc­tion threats.

More than once, Baker ref­er­ences the “filthy, insidious pollen of farm chem­i­cals” such as DDT and dield­rin that were rav­aging wild pere­grine num­bers both sides of the At­lantic at the time. If Baker did in­deed de­spise his own species, it is un­doubt­edly in part due to the vi­o­lently de­struc­tive ef­fect of these chem­i­cals on the coun­try­side and his beloved apex preda­tors in par­tic­u­lar. Rachel Car­son’s land­mark ex­pose Silent Spring had blown the lid off the DDT cri­sis five years pre­vi­ously and Baker was one of a new gen­er­a­tion of nat­u­ral­ists who feared the very worst.

Wartime Ger­man bomb­ing raids, wit­nessed by a 16-year-old Baker over his lo­cal Chelms­ford, would also feed into this bub­bling fascination with death from above.

For Tim Dee, the bril­liant na­ture writer, there is ar­guably a cold war subtext there too. In

The Run­ning Sky, Dee neatly sums up the “Iron-cold sadis­tic brutality” and “weird­ness” of

The Pere­grine as be­ing “na­ture writ­ing’s Goya” (the Span­ish artist’s Black Paint­ings do in­deed work off a sim­i­lar pal­ette of dis­il­lu­sion­ment and dizzy­ing vi­o­lence). In Four Fields, Dee dis­cusses the book as “a toxic ac­count of a sick and self-hat­ing man” chas­ing a dwin­dling species in a world on the brink of nuclear obliv­ion hinted at in Baker’s “mag­ne­sium flare” sun. It was Dee’s favourite bird book dur­ing his school­boy years, pre­sum­ably be­cause its bleak seis­mic vi­bra­tions rhymed so keenly with the nat­u­ral his­tory class­room nar­ra­tive of the day – pol­lu­tion and ex­tinc­tion.

Gothic hues

While pere­grine num­bers have re­turned with gusto thanks to the ef­forts of avian sci­en­tists, fal­con­ers and wildlife law­mak­ers, the wider un­ease The Pere­grine feeds off is cer­tainly be­ing felt again to­day as the en­vi­ron­ment at large re­mains un­der peril and the em­bers of nuclear threat be­gin to glow again. It gives the book’s an­niver­sary an eerie res­o­nance. Leav­ing aside its gothic hues and the many ques­tions over the au­then­tic­ity of Baker’s notes – some pas­sages are trans­par­ently fan­tas­tic – The Pere­grine is a gift for all time.

It has ren­dered this most ex­quis­ite of an­i­mals with a suit­ably ex­quis­ite colour scheme. It still shocks and as­tounds with its trippy lin­guis­tic vor­tices, de­spite its vin­tage. Like all the very best na­ture writ­ing that has ger­mi­nated as a re­sult of it, it seeps in and places a sur­rep­ti­tious fil­ter on how the reader goes on to per­ceive the en­vi­ron­ment around them. There is per­haps no higher achieve­ment in lit­er­a­ture.

Baker writes like an an­gel but al­ways the an­gel of death. No com­mu­nity and lit­tle hu­man warmth ex­ist in its pages. Baker wrote it as if he were the last man on Earth


One of John Alec Baker’s (above) note­books il­lus­trates the pro­ce­dural de­tail he went into when re­search­ing and re­vis­ing

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