The Peregrine by J.A. Baker
In 1967 J.A. Baker‘s book The Peregrine was published to immediate acclaim, staking its place firmly in the list of all-time classic nature books. More than fifty years later it feels as fresh and important as ever, perhaps more so. For it is on the flat marshes of the Essex coastline that Baker, through his fascination with this glorious hunter challenged our attitudes to both our immediate habitat, the planet as a whole and the everyday life of nature in its fight for survival.
Over the course of several winters Baker studied the peregrine falcons which hunted the mudflats and empty fields for unsuspecting pigeons, gulls, lapwings, partridge, fieldfare and other birds with its remarkable stealth, unrivalled speed and power. The peregrine is a magnificent predator, its call can, on rare occasion, be heard from city rooftops to the wildest moorlands and Arabian deserts, yet, despite its awesome prowess it is less common than it should be and we only have ourselves to blame for that.
But this is no mechanical savage, for every kill Baker shows us many more misses, despite its abilities, the falcon’s existence is far from guaranteed and the beauty of this book lies in its understanding and portrayal of wildlife’s struggle to hunt, eat and avoid death via animal or human interreference. We remain largely ignorant of the direct impact our practices have wreaked upon our wildlife, the chain reaction in nature’s cycle caused by crop spraying and land development to our own individual neglect and thirst for consumerism. If I have learnt anything from our global shutdown in 2020 it is the importance of time and how much we miss through the lack of it. To witness the changing season with the time to do so has been revelatory, it’s made sense of Baker’s mission with this book. To see nature cope and adapt to its changing surroundings has been remarkable, and like Baker, I have watched the relationships between one species and another as they cohabit their landscape. And this natural life is indeed remarkable, Baker beautifully portrays the contrast between those which cohabit peacefully and those which hunt and fight for dominance of the skies above. We become very familiar with Baker’s subject far more than we are of him, his own personal contribution is typically understated but surely deliberate. For this is about a bird which has fascinated a man for a decade in a period of continued post-war change and development. By 1967 we can feel his sense of impending loss for his local landscape and the knowledge its progress would not falter.
‘For ten years I followed the peregrine. I was possessed by it. It was a grail to me. Now it has gone. The long pursuit is over. Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive. Many die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy insidious pollen of farm chemicals’
The Peregrine can be read as the definitive account of the life and study of the peregrine falcon but it is more than that, much more. This is the diary of our living landscape and a deeply moving account of nature’s struggle to exist on our terms. This book should be compulsory reading at school level if we are to have any hope of redressing this tragic imbalance.
Categories: The Reading Room
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