By Ruby Quince
Leicestershires of Swift Green Light
In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker compresses 10 years of tracking the extraordinary raptor around rural Essex in the 60’s into a series of diary entries over a single winter. It’s an incredible portrait of the rare peregrine (they were culled during the way because they kept eating homing pigeons needed by servicemen) and an immersion into a quiet, desperate obsession with bleak bite.
The prose brims with exquisite language that turns the sky above into a solid landscape: “I swooped through leicestershires of swift green light”. There’s an incredible synaesthesia to baker’s account of details; of the nightjar he writes “its songs is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep and booming cask… in the glare of day it would seem thinner and drier, but dusk mellows it and gives it vintage”. Nouns turn into verbs (“every twig seemed to vein inwards”) and adjectives into nouns (“wisps of sunlight into a bleak of cloud”). Like poetry, you can’t read more than a few pages at a time, and frequently I found myself looking up, staggered by a sentence.
Despite the richness of the diary entries, there’s a chilling sense of space and emptiness throughout. “Nothing happened.” is the sort of sentence that reminds us that the literary fireworks are punctuated by waiting, traipsing, disappointment.
He travelled light on his pushbike (he never learnt to drive): A pair of binoculars, a small telescope, a Bic pen, notebook, Ordnance Survey maps, sandwiches and tea packed by his wife. No devices, no camera phones, just words.
Baker doesn’t reference himself at all, leaving a vacuum that compels you to grasp at tiny details to get a reflection of the author. In the supporting texts his wife described him as a ‘tricky customer’, spending all of his time on the road or writing up his notes between his shifts at the local Bitvic depot. He suffered rheumatoid arthritis at an early age, anchoring him in a stiffening body as he wrote and rewrote about the fastest creature on earth.
Documentary director Werner Herzog included it as a mandatory read for his Rogue Film School. He talks of The Peregrine as ‘ecstatic’ in the purest sense of the word, with Baker literally ‘outside of himself’. He became the bird. One of the options for our SCAB was to sit and observe, and it struck me that this was observation on steroids; a masterclass in behaviour.
It was Baker’s first book and he spent over a decade on it. It won various prizes, has been called one of the finest books on nature ever written and has crossed over to the wider literary world as a masterwork. He published just one more book, a few years later, with a lot less celebration.
There was controversy: experts challenged the observations and questioned whether Baker really knew what he was talking about, the vagueness of time and location and the diaries he destroyed. His defenders pointed out that the depth of his study meant he saw things that science hadn’t found. Baker stated the philosophy behind his work was that “the hardest thing to see is what is there”. Some challenged details have since been proven to show Baker was right all along, but not all. I can’t help feel indifferent to the quizzing by bird boffins. Fact or fiction, it’s a mesmerizing experience and a thing of beauty.