Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Peregrine: A Masterpiece

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Wildlife, Behavior, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

JA Baker THE PEREGRINE 1967 Harper & Row, inc. Reissued by The New York Review of Books in 2004.

This book is based on 10 years of meticulous observations which were distilled into a single winter season. I'm not going to say much about it except to urge you to read it. It remains my favorite book of nature writing.

In a review (2005?) I can no longer find, Kathleen Jamie wrote "What will date this the author's self-eradication," something I noticed upon first reading. Baker is explicitly absent in the book as are place names. He simply uses the cardinal compass points - the north, etc. - for locations. 
The book is about the falcon and is divided into three parts: Beginnings, Peregrines (November, December, January, February, March, April), and The Hunting Life.

When I first read it little was known about the author who was born in 1926 and died in 1967 and it was not easy to learn more. He lived his entire life in Chelmsford, Essex, was an office worker, got about on bicycle and foot, used binoculars (10 x 50) and a hand held telescope, had arthritis and did his work when birds of prey in England appeared headed for extinction.
In 2011 HarperCollins published in a single volume The Complete Works of JA Baker (he wrote two books, one a companion to The Peregrine).  The HarperCollins website for the books has some information about Baker.
There is also a biography by Hetty Saunders titled "My House of Sky" (Little Toller Books, 2018). It includes Baker's notebooks, journals and annotated maps with a photo essay and original artwork. I've never read it. Maybe someday.

Here are some quotes from The Peregrine.

--"I have turned away from the musky opulence of the summer woods...Autumn begins my season of hawk hunting, spring ends it, winter glitters between like the arch of Orion."--p.11

--"The hardest thing of all  to see is what is really there."--p.19

--"She drifted idly; remote, inimical. She balanced in the wind, two thousand feet above, while the white cloud passed beyond her and went across the estuary to the south. Slowly her wings curved back. She slipped smoothly through the wind, as though she were moving forward on a wire. This mastery of the roaring wind, this majesty and noble power of flight, made me shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement. Now, I thought, I have seen the best of the peregrine; there will be no need to pursue it farther; I shall never want to search for it again. I was wrong of course. One can never have enough"--p.149 
--Imprisoned by horizons, I envied the hawk his boundless prospect of the sky. Hawks live on the curve of the air. Their globed eyes have never seen the grey flatness of our human vision.--p.170

I've yet to read it this year. No small part of the pleasure of reading it each year is recalling who recommended to to me - a peregrine expert. He also read it once a year. We were having a casual conversation about graduate school and books, when he said, "I bet you've never read this book." He could have added "or heard of it." My copy was published by the University of Idaho Press.

I mentioned that when Baker was making his observations the future of the peregrines in England was dicey and they seemed headed for extinction. Thanks to much work they survived. This article from the newspaper, The Daily Mail (2018) has more information about this and their status today.

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