The Peregrine by J.A. Baker
The way of the world–its violence and beauty, symmetry and chaos, drama and grace–when examined closely and without sentimentality, is almost unbelievable in its power and complexity, and J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine is one of the more successful attempts at exploring this phenomenon. A wonderfully peculiar hybrid of field guide and travelog in which observation and obsession collide, it’s a work of substance, captivation, and terror that far surpasses what one might expect from such a slim volume.
Baker’s stated purpose is to track a pair of peregrine falcons from Fall to Spring across eastern England. Patient and dogged, Baker details a vivid world that’s seemingly void of humans and in which falcons are those that set everything in motion. Baker’s kinship with the peregrines progressively deepens, eventually arriving at a point when he seems to slough off his humanness in an experience “of proximity, of identification.” (p. 138) Slowly but surely, he’s acculturated into the hawks’ terrain.
Baker’s appraisal of landscape, arguably as crucial to this work as the peregrines, is rendered in a clean, crisp, and compact prose that none-the-less possesses a high concentration of insight and import. The writing is deceptively lyrical, and, being equal parts pithy and potent, I found myself regularly revisiting passages in an effort to unpack deeper meanings and revel in Baker’s stunningly evocative descriptions and deft wielding of metaphor. In regards to this expressive treatment of nature and, particularly, terrain, Cormac McCarthy’s western landscapes may come to mind, but Baker is far more lucid and exacting, avoiding bombast and dealing instead in acuity and accuracy that, though simmering, are every bit as dramatic.
This is a book to be savored and re-explored. It’s a singular work, one that implies and implicates far more than is directly present in the text. It’s about falcons, to be sure, but it’s also about being human, being present, and being a part of something far larger than we often realize.