I spent some time in December on a virtual walk across a ten by twenty mile area trailing J A Baker as he in turn trailed a couple of peregrine hawks over the fenlands and the estuaries of east Anglia. Of course, my virtual walk was conducted from the comfort of my fireside and only lasted ten days whereas Baker was outdoors in all weathers in pursuit of his prey, and his walk lasted from October to March when the Peregrines migrate to Scandinavia for the summer months.
"The Peregrine", first published in 1967, reads as the diary he kept during that period but may include observations made over the course of the many other winters which Baker spent following the movements of these birds; it is important to point out from the beginning that even though this book is at first glance simply the diary of a bird watcher, it is also a novel with characters, setting, plot and suspense and therefore any liberties Baker takes with chronology, weather and sightings, are perfectly in order. Having said that, this novel is presented exactly like a diary with entries only for those days he spends following the peregrines. He never tells us what he does on the other days, or how he spends his evenings, no personal details are included, all of the focus being reserved for the birds and the landscape. The only explanation he gives for this obsession with bird watching is when he says:
“I have always longed to be part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; to return to the town as a stranger.”
Doesn’t the repetition of descriptions of birds and landscape become terribly tedious after a while, you may ask? I can only reply that Baker succeeds in capturing our interest with the variety of the daily movements of the birds and the beautiful language of the descriptions. Here is an example of his prose:
“The first bird I searched for was the nightjar, which used to nest in the valley. Its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep and booming cask. It is an odorous sound, with a bouquet that rises to the sky. In the glare of day it would seem thinner and drier, but dusk mellows it and gives it vintage. If a song could smell, this song would smell of crushed grapes and almonds and dark wood. The sound spills out, and none of it is lost. The whole wood brims with it. Then it stops. Suddenly, unexpectedly. But the ear hears it still, a prolonged and fading echo, draining and winding out among the surrounding trees.”
Elsewhere, he speaks of “a crackling blackness of jackdaws”, of hiding “in my own stillness”, of the soaring of the peregrines being “an endless silent singing.”
As the title suggests, the novel is mainly about peregrines and we learn that they belong to the hawk family, that the males are called tiercels and the females are falcons, that they resemble kestrels and sparrow hawks but are faster, more intelligent and more deadly. “Whatever is destroyed, the act of destruction doesn't vary very much,” Baker tells us, speaking no doubt not only of these raptors but also of man and his relationship with the earth; there is an environmental sub text, man is destroying the landscape, in particular with pesticide use, and birds and animals are losing their habitats and being slowly poisoned. However, Baker doesn’t glorify the hawks or seek to excuse their violence towards their prey. He does point out, however that they kill their victims almost immediately with an efficient strike to the spinal cord, not for humane reasons but simply to prevent escape.
Surely it is an impossibility that there can be any measure of suspense in a bird watcher’s diary, I hear you say. Nevertheless there is a plot and it keeps us reading until the final pages when we understand the outcome of the story. I leave it to you to discover how Baker achieves this magic....Continua