Blacktop Rain

…and other secret joys

Wanderlust, or searching for J.A. Baker

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Reading Baker

Reading Baker

In search of the nature writer J.A. Baker I started in the obvious place – with his works. I bought myself the Collins edition, containing both his books – The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer – and some of his diaries, as well as his only other publication, a short essay written for the RSPB about the Essex coast.

Then, I read. It was not a quick devouring but a slow process over the space of a year and a half. First, The Peregrine, read just after I had finished my MA in Nature Writing. The Peregrine is Baker’s captivating diary of a winter spent haunting the Essex countryside for peregrines. After two decades of formal education I was wondering what to do next. I was between places and The Peregrine filled in the gaps. I read it on my bed, at home, with my own bleak winterscape of gardens and rooftops outside.

Recently, I opened up my Baker anthology again to read his less well-known book, The Hill of Summer, which again charts a single season, though this time with a more general focus on the various landscapes, birds and animals of Baker’s Essex patch.

I filled up pages of my notebook with quotes and thoughts on his works and prepared to write them out. Then, I read what others had written about Baker and realised that it had all been said before, that none of my revelations were new. In his introduction to my Baker anthology, Mark Cocker writes about Baker’s use of language, how he turns nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns, about his anthropomorphism and synaesthesia. The scant details of his life have already been laid out and speculated upon many times. Others too have noted Baker’s own transformation into a peregrine-like creature, as he becomes obsessed with the bird he diligently watches.

So, what can I say about Baker that hasn’t already been said before? Only that no other writer haunts me the way J.A. Baker does. That no writer has captured my imagination quite the way he has, to the point that I am almost as intoxicated by the writer as I am by the beauty of his writing. What fascinates me – and what seems to fascinate others too – is the fact that one man could spend his whole life in one small corner of the country – a patch Mark Cocker estimates at just 550km², exploring it and writing about it with such patience, care and attention.

The lives of writer’s invariably affect how we think about their work. For instance, the works of the Brontë sisters – rightly or wrongly – are made all the more remarkable for the context of the sisters’ lives. Indeed, their works are defined even by their sisterhood. Interestingly, the Brontë sisters, and Emily in particular, are probably the only other writers that come close to haunting me the way Baker does. The thought of Emily walking on the moors adds power to her novel. So Baker’s life, revealed both through what has recently been discovered about him and, more importantly, through his own writing, adds power to his works.

Reading The Peregrine inspired me to start this blog and my first blog post was a review of The Peregrine. In my review I wrote of Baker:

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.

At the point that I wrote that my momentum had run out somewhat. University had offered a chance to get out of the city I had lived in my whole life, but after university I was living at home again and unsure what my next move would be. Now I’ve left and set up camp in a new city. I’ve found my own ‘patch’, yet still there is this balancing act: nostalgia for home, a desire to stay still long enough to become deeply familiar with a place, and this persistent wanderlust for some unknown elsewhere. Perhaps it is a balancing act we must all perform. But it was only by staying in one place – by becoming a monomaniac – that Baker was able to write as he did.

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Author: Naomi Racz

I am a nature writer, with a particular interest in urban nature. I also write about social media and work in communications with an NGO.

7 thoughts on “Wanderlust, or searching for J.A. Baker

  1. A lovely post. I think Baker is very hard to write about, and I share your ambivalence. I’m torn between awe at the beauty of his prose and and wonder about his obsessiveness. I’m highly tempted to read him as a ‘shadow of the bomb’ writer, a kind of British beat poet, but I don’t think many agree!

    • That’s really interesting, I would never have thought of Baker as a beat poet, but I kind of see what you’re saying – especially the way he plays with language. But to me he feels even less classifiable than the beat movement, he is almost of his own ilk, apart from any other writer (certainly that I’ve read). Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the thoughtful (and thought-provoking) comment.

  2. Like you I have been mesmerized by ‘The Peregrine’ and troubled about how to find my own voice in Baker’s glow. I have taught the book for the last six years to A Level English students, a process that has only increased its magic and appeal. The best piece of criticism by far, in my opinion is to be found in Robert MacFarlane’s’ introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of ‘The Peregrine’. I am generally confident, but in the presence of this critic and this writer, finding my own voice through my blog has taken a great deal of careful thinking! I wish you all the best with yours. Sean

    • Thanks! I know what you mean, I don’t think you can read Baker and not have his writing influence your own writing, which I suppose is a mark that he’s a truly great writer. I really wanted to read the Macfarlane introduction actually, I might just have to get myself a copy of the NYRB edition. If you know of any other reading-around texts for The Peregrine I’d be very interested to hear them.

  3. Thank you for these reflections, Naomi. When it comes to Baker, I was late to the party, only recently stumbling upon his work because of an interest in the peregrines that live in my city (see my reflections on his writing here: http://www.humansandnature.org/blog/peregrines-city). I deeply sympathize with feeling tugged in opposing directions in terms of wanderlust and putting roots down. I never thought I’d end up an urbanite, but one of the lessons I take from Baker is that learning to see (and write) well is a craft, as applicable to a city as it is to rural Essex.

    • Thank you for sharing your peregrine post (peregrinations?) with me! We have a nesting pair of peregrines here in Nottingham – known as Mr and Mrs P – and they have just had 3 chicks. A peregrine cam has been set up so you can watch them: http://www.ntu.ac.uk/ecoweb/biodiversity/falcons/

      I’ve been an urbanite my whole life and have always thought I’d end up living in the countryside, but increasingly I’m learning to love urban landscapes and the interesting enclaves they provide for nature. In a way I find those borderlands between city and nature more fascinating than ‘natural’ landscapes (very difficult to find in Britain anyway). Certainly reading Baker has helped me in that regards, since I’ve started noticing birds its made me appreciate urban nature much more.

      The Centre for Humans and Nature blog has been on my radar for a while, so thank you also for reminding me I need to check it out!

  4. I think the AO that Baker roams in is less than 550 km sq, more like 250, around Tollesbury – eastern area – there are plenty of estuary birds, south of the town is River Blackwater and the sea wall, west is Maldon and the salt flats, there are a few small woods that he names North & South wood, not sure where the orchard is. It is an emotive area and the landscape draws me in with a desire to paint
    it – not with colour but with black white a grey. Winter would be the ideal time, things will change when the new Bradwell Nuclear power station is built by the Chinese on the southern bank of the estuary. If I see a peregrine during my painting expedition I will note it here, but I’m more likely to see a buzzard. One of my top five books 😀 RIP J A Baker

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