J. A. Baker (1926-1987) was an amateur ornithologist who cycled around the Essex countryside in the 60s, observing the bird life. Little is known about him, except that he worked for the Automobile Association but did not possess a car.
He wrote a book about his observations of the wintering peregrine falcon, The Peregrine, which was published in 1967. This beautifully written work has since acquired a unique status, transcending many other works in the genre with its poetic power – at times like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover, elsewhere marked by the author’s admiration for Ted Hughes. It is, in a remarkable way, the closest any human being gets to actually becoming a wild creature – the hypnotic absorption is so complete, the language so vibrant and evocative.
The whole book condenses 10 winters of observation into one, and the overarching lesson it teaches is how to “see” and marshal the powers of language to preserve the freshness and truth of that vision. The film director Werner Herzog has famously championed the book, saying that it has “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented” and calls it “the one book I would ask you to read if you want to make films”.
A few illustrative extracts, chosen almost at random:
“The sky peeled white in the north-west gale, leaving the eye no refuge from the sun’s cold glare. Distance was blown away, and every tree and church and farm came closer, scoured of its skin of haze. Down the estuary I could see trees nine miles away, bending over in the wind-whipped sea. New horizons stood up bleached and stark, plucked out by the cold talons of the gale.”
“The tide was rising in the estuary; sleeping waders crowded the saltings; plovers were restless. I expected the hawk to drop from the sky, but he came low from inland. He was a skimming black crescent, cutting across the saltings, sending up a cloud of dunlin dense as a swarm of bees. He drove up between them, black shark in shoals of silver fish, threshing and plunging. With a sudden stab down he was clear of the swirl and was chasing a solitary dunlin up into the sky. The dunlin seemed to come slowly back to the hawk. It passed into his dark outline, and did not reappear. There was no brutality, no violence. The hawk’s foot reached out, and gripped, and squeezed, and quenched the dunlin’s heart as effortlessly as a man’s finger extinguishing an insect. Languidly, easily, the hawk glided down to an elm on the island to plume and eat his prey.”
“At two o’clock, a crackling blackness of jackdaws swept up from stubble and scattered out across the sky with a noise like dominoes being rattled together on a pub table.”
I read this in the same week that I read Brian J. Ford’s Sensitive Souls (1999), a magnificent study, rich in the latest scientific information and insight, that debunks man’s sense of his own superiority and illustrates how all of life – animals, plants, bacteria – is sentient in ways we would never have suspected, often with a rich emotional life and complex sense of family and social structure.
The case he makes is that we are all “cousins” in life, and should act accordingly. The back-cover blurb says the book “offers an all-embracing new vision of life”, which indeed it does. As I read it, images of Gulag livestock rearing and abusive abattoirs constantly came to mind. This book, and Baker’s, go a long way towards opening our eyes to the incredible beauty and complexity of the natural world, but also to how far we have debased it and, in so doing, debased ourselves.