November 30th. . Two kills by the river: kingfisher and snipe. The snipe lay half submerged in flooded grass, cryptic even in death. The kingfisher shone even in mud at the river’s edge, like a brilliant eye.
When Kirk Follo asked me if I’d read J. A. Baker’s book The Peregrine, I first wondered if it was kin to The Maltese Falcon, and my curiosity was piqued. After five minutes of Kirk’s enthusiastic recommendation, I was sold on the book, but soon learned I was unable to buy it in Tiny Town. The college library, however, rescued me, as the book was a New York Review classic paperback in ’67, long before I knew what peregrine meant. And the library had it. Kirk is a demanding and discerning reader and critic, but I still doubted I’d have the same life-enhancing experience I’d had with Jonathan Maslow’s The Owl Papers on Cumberland Island, GA over two decades ago, one of my two most exciting nature book reads (the other? Barry Lopez’s Of Men and Wolves). Maybe I was wrong about that.
John Alec Baker has been something of a mystery man, the author of only two books, putatively a longtime librarian (but now Wiki says an auto company employee) born in 1926 and deceased, well, the literary world was unsure about that when the paperback was issued. His life span dates in the book are listed as (1926-?), which is pretty unusual, since he was still alive and writing in 1967, though his hawk book suggests he had recently received a dire personal prognosis. Turns out – rheumatoid arthritis, eventually followed by cancer from the arthritis drugs. But I stray.
For a decade Baker was possessed by the shrinking population of English peregrines, and for almost a year (October to March, a kind of “peregrine year”) Baker traipsed about the fields, marshes and woodlands of a small coastal region in East Anglia, where he “hunted” (with field glasses and a notebook) and documented the local peregrines, a small population likely destined to follow their cousins to the undiscovered country via agricultural chemicals. The slender volume he left detailing the flights and feedings, matings and general peregrinations [from L for wandering or foreign; I couldn’t resist] of the birds, which are paragons of hunting efficiency and beauty, their in-flight kills elegant, their mantling, plucking and feeding nearly ritualistic, their life force exciting and inspiring. They have running (soaring) scrimmages with crows, who like to mob them, and seem prone to gambol and play, as well as simply to observe the comings and goings of other avians with British names like godwit, knot, fieldfare, the many plovers, gulls and other fishers that haunt estuarial territories. Their primary provender is the woodpigeon, and almost without exception these hawks take their prey in flight, often by a steep vertical stoop at about a hundred miles an hour.
Look them up in Sibley or the Audubon guide, and you’ll find some specimen images a gray slate with black highlights, others the colors of a light-phase copperhead, but not until you read Baker describing them will you think that many writers have ever done justice to describing a bird, tweedy in pattern or arrowhead-schemed, moustached, hook-beaked, lethal-taloned.
So who needs to know so much about a bird? Well, the subject is fascinating, the matter, but that’s almost collateral. What truly matters is manner, the manner of observation and of rendering. Both Pound and Stevens insisted that the test of sincerity is craft, Pound adding that absolute attention is prayer. But Baker is not a snazzy or mandarin stylist, he’s not even aiming for the kind of magical flair Lopez brings to “nature writing.” He just observes with such a quiet ferocity of spirit and mastery of material that the sentences, which often contain subtle incremental repetitions, spiel out as if they are the beautiful presences, instead of descriptions of those presences. He’s not particularly clever or ornate, but he observes, describes, juxtaposes and reveals his discoveries in a manner that seldom approaches embellishment.
And he’s not there. He’s the ghost voice, the transparent eyeball that delivers the is. Except, perhaps, in the matter of color, all the nuances and overtones, undertones. His writing has a kind of painter’s pentimento that mixes the colors of marshweeds, mudflats, the chill air across which the tierce (male) or falcon (female) etches its signature and swoops down to snatch the life from its prey. Reading the descriptions of the raptors’ acts are near rapture, as if this book were the casebook meant to prove the truth of James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals,” in which he imagines the predator’s “descent/ Upon the bright backs of their prey// . . . In a sovereign floating of joy.”
Four or five hours’ reading, a penitential act for anyone who suspects he or she has loved and looked too glibly or pretended to master a body of knowledge never truly penetrated to its heartbeat. But a providential exercise, as well. The intricate stitchery by which the world has made itself, without flourish or boast, no vita to flaunt, but just the turning ceremony of each successive day seen by the most ravenous eye imaginable and delivered with one of the most earnest and unself-righteous hands conceivable.
There’s not much plot to this story, as Baker resists the temptation to anthropomorphize the creatures that spellbind him (but which he never claims to “love”), but reading it I feel that I have requested, echoing Robert Penn Warren, “Tell me a story of deep delight,” and that I’ve been heard by someone or something actually able to deliver the goods. Owls, pileateds, and the red kites of Wales have long been my favorite birds, but Baker has offered a new candidate, and I’m all Zeissed-up, wide-eyed and ready to see for myself. All I need is a map.
Here’s the beginning of Baker’s October 39 entry:
The wind-shred banner of the autumn sky spanned the green headland between the two estuaries. The east wind drove drenching grey and silver showers through the frozen cider sky. Birds rose from ploughland as a merlin flew above them, small and brown and swift, lifting dark against the sky, dipping and swerving down along the furrows. All brown or stubbled fields shivered and glittered with larks; all green were plied with plover. Quiet lanes brindled with drifting leaves.