The Peregrine is written in the form of a diary that spans from October to April and purports to chart a single wintering season of the peregrines in a small corner of Essex. However, The Peregrine is in fact the culmination of 10 years of stalking and observing on the part of Baker. Baker is a monomaniac, he is obsessed and hypnotised by peregrines, and his level of dedication to them is what makes this book so intriguing and worth the read.
I was sceptical about how interesting a book about one man following a single species of bird could be, and to be honest it is a slow read, but then The Peregrine is a book that demands to be read slowly and savoured. Time and again I found myself re-reading sentences over and over, not because I kept getting distracted or because I didn’t understand them, but because of the beauty of Baker’s language and the clarity with which he portrays the life of the world around him.
My favourite line in the whole book is I swooped through leicestershires of swift green light. I’m not even sure what it means, or whether Baker even knew what it meant, but that doesn’t really matter. Baker is simply enjoying the poetry of the sound of certain words together and in doing so he brings a meaning to his work that goes beyond a dictionary definition.
Baker knows the landscape he wanders through and the life that shares it with him so well and so intimately that he is able to bring the reader into it. For instance, at one point he comes across a mouse at the side of the road and touches it on the back:
He was unaware of my touch, of my face a foot above him, as he bent the tree-top grasses down to his nibbling teeth. I was like a galaxy to him, too big to be seen.
Reading this I could see the mouse’s perspective clearly because Baker converts it to a human scale. It is a brilliantly described moment because it reveals a kind of human arrogance, or maybe it is innocence, that our size and threat-level means we ought to be noticed, but to the mouse Baker is irrelevant.
Baker’s imagery isn’t always successful though. He describes the teeth of a dead porpoise as being like the zip-fastener of a gruesome nightdress case. Perhaps it is because I’m not particularly familiar with nightdress cases, let alone gruesome ones, but this description is clunky to say the least.
The Peregrine is primarily about the peregrines that Baker observes and follows, as well as other birds and animals he encounters on his rambles across the Essex countryside and coastline. Baker writes beautifully about these creatures, and yet for me the most intriguing thing about the book is Baker himself. In part because he appears to put so little of himself into the book. He is occasionally there in the writing as a physical and emotional presence, but there is no mention of his life outside bird watching.
I found this particularly interesting because one of the things we discussed a lot on my MA course was the fine line between placing the self into ones writing and putting too much of the self into it. This line seems to produce a particularly interesting and endless debate in the context of nature writing, because so much nature writing seems to fall into the ‘lone man in the wilderness’ category. This category is something I have ambiguous feelings about and it is one into which The Peregrine seems clearly to fall.
The power of The Peregrine lies in Baker’s obsession with the birds he hunts, and I do not use ‘obsession’ in a negative way. There is something incredibly admirable in his dedication to one species, in one small patch of countryside. It makes me question my own sense of momentum and whether I could commit to one place on such a deep level.
Baker’s obsession leads him to become like the thing he hunts. At one point he comes across an unfinished peregrine kill:
What was left smelt fresh and sweet, like a mash of raw beef and pineapple. It was an appetizing smell, not the least bit rank or fishy. I could have eaten it myself if I had been hungry.
Baker shocks with his honesty, but it is also a moment that reveals his intense affinity with the peregrines. Elsewhere he says I am as solitary now as the hawk I pursue. Baker is overstating his point a little, but it hints at why there is so little of the man Baker in the book. It is because he longs for the freedom, solitude, and predictability of the peregrine’s life. In the end that human baggage is unimportant. In the end it is the figure of Baker haunting the Essex coastline, and not the peregrines, that has stayed with me since I closed the covers of the book for the final time.