I recently saw Eric Abetz, and it made me unhappy. He was standing on the street in a patch of Hobart light, bathing in the weak wash of the southern sun, a smile on his face, and this scene—the banality of his contentment juxtaposed with the pallid horror of his existence—wrought in me a deep, gnawing displeasure. I was supposed to be finding lunch, but I could no longer concentrate on what I wanted to eat. He looked so happy there in the pale light, this man who has opposed decriminalising homosexuality, who has linked abortion with breast cancer on national television, who has passionately pursued a career of making life harder for people whose lives are already hard. My unhappiness swelled. I forgot all thoughts of food and fled into the comfort of a nearby bookstore.
I wandered through the fiction, biography, history and thriller aisles before reaching the nature section, where my attention snagged on a yellow paperback, its cover dominated by a diving bird of prey. It was The Peregrine, by J. A. Baker. I had never heard of it before, but a jacket quote promised that it was a classic of nature writing, and the blurb made it seem uncomplicated, and the clean lines of the swooping raptor appealed to me, so I bought it. That afternoon, with Abetz and his sun-smile still shining in my mind, I began reading.
I opened the book, and after a few minutes Abetz blinked clean out of my mind; for I had found ecstasy. And not ecstasy of my own—although there were many times while reading the book that I did feel ecstatic, completely outside of myself—but the ecstasy of another mind enraptured with two things: birds and words. For while The Peregrine is in some ways a straightforward book—it details a man tracking and observing peregrine falcons on the Essex coast—it does so in such an extraordinary manner that I can only describe it as intoxicating. Reading it made me feel drunk, the kind of three-gin slide where thoughts slip into each other, when lights start to fuzz. To write about how Baker’s prose induces this effect seems a bit foolish, but I will try. And it seems best to start by explaining the book in straightforward terms.
For roughly ten years, from 1954 to 1964, John Alec Baker roamed the Essex countryside, watching peregrine falcons soar, dive, bathe, nest and hunt. At night he would record what he had seen in his journals, eventually condensing this decade of twitching into a single “season”. The book begins with an introduction from the author, then describes peregrine falcons and the various birds they prey on, then moves into diary-like entries that detail Baker’s birding expeditions, then ends. That’s it.
But it’s not the structure of the book that’s so striking: it’s the writing. Baker’s descriptions are dizzyingly evocative, and his language is fantastically dextrous and muscular. Adjectives twist into verbs, nouns swell with unexpected energy, and wild similes swirl with glorious metaphors. This prose is wielded with daring, confidence and startling skill. At times it feels like the words shouldn’t work, but they always do, often in sentences and phrases that verge on the sublime. Take, for example, how he describes a falcon in the sky:
The hawk’s plumage stained through the shadows of smoke, gleamed like mail in glittering spray.
Or what he sees as seasons change:
Wet ploughlands are dark as malt, stubbles are bearded with weeds and sodden with water. Gales have taken the last of the leaves. Autumn is thrown down. Winter stands.
Much of the work is written in this type of stylish, breathtaking reportage, but occasionally we catch a glimpse of how watching falcons has made Baker feel about his own species.
Man might be tolerable, less fractious and smug, if he had more to fear…fear of the unseen menacing beast, imminent, bristly, tusked and terrible, ravening for one’s own hot saline blood.
And the joy he takes in a close encounter:
When he suddenly flew past me, I was lifted to joy on the surge of his wings.
Despite the exploded, flesh-and-pulse realism of the book, it’s hard to ever feel truly anchored while reading it, due to the dark wonder that fills Baker’s words.
When hawks have gone from sight, you must look up into the sky; their reflection rises in the birds that fear them. There is so much more sky than land.
But despite this wonder he does not romanticise the objects of his obsession; rather, he describes them in a poetic detail that rushes each falcon he encounters into the reader’s mind.
In the misty greyness he was the colour of mud and straw; dull frozen shades that only sunlight can transform to flowing gold.
Nor does he shy away from the brutal realities of a predator’s life. The Peregrine is filled with the corpses of the birds that his quarry hunts, usually described in typical Bakerish grandeur:
Blood looked black in the dusk, bare bones white as a grin of teeth. A hawk’s kill is like the warm embers of a dying fire.
This singular commitment, this dare of language and this unforgettable lyrical style would all be enough to make this a great book, or at least a worthy read. But there is more to it. A great, wrenching sense of loss is suffused into the pages— loss partnered with outrage and sorrow and despair. For when Baker was following his peregrines, he had glumly accepted that these birds were soon to disappear. In 1940, when he was a teenager, a bounty had been placed on peregrine adults, chicks and eggs in Britain. It was wartime, and falcons were known killers of carrier pigeons, which were deployed by RAF bombers when they crashed at sea and radio systems failed. The bounty was lifted in 1946, but by then 600 adult peregrines had been killed, and unknown numbers of eggs destroyed. In some parts of England, they were completely wiped out.
Just as populations were starting to recover, another manmade crisis emerged. Toxins from organochlorine pesticides, widely used in agriculture at the time, had progressed through the food chain, growing in concentration at each trophic level. Adult falcons were dying, and eggshells were getting thinner. Two years after Baker’s expeditions began, in 1956, many peregrine pairs were failing to hatch chicks, a trend that continued throughout his birding years. Adult falcons kept dying, new generations were not replacing them, and the situation continued to worsen. As he says in his foreword:
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.
By 1963, as he reached the end of his expeditions, populations were plummeting across the British Isles. The problems were well understood, but a solution seemed improbable. To Baker and other naturists, twitchers and wilderness enthusiasts, the species’ death warrant had been signed.
This sense of impending doom creates a dual effect. First, there is the effect on Baker’s writing, rendered mournful by the catastrophe of extinction and the indiscriminate destruction of industrial progress. And there is the effect it has on the reader, for we know that peregrine falcons were not doomed; we know that they recovered, and are now one of the most widespread birds of prey in the world. But in reading the book, we cannot escape the depth of feeling that hums through Baker’s unique, brutal prose. And in his words, we can see not just what he sees, but the whole scene taking place: a quiet, short-sighted man walking and pedalling his way around the dark greenery of the wet Essex coast, searching for something he is fiercely attached to, waiting for it to die; for love to go extinct.
Since opening the book, I have become fascinated by peregrine falcons. I learned that they nest on the underside of the Tasman bridge, the great cement swoop that connects Hobart’s western and eastern shores, and every time I cross it I think I am near a falcon, and wonder if it is sleeping below me or cutting up the sky above. At work I neglect my duties to watch a live feed of three falcon chicks that have recently hatched on top of a Melbourne skyscraper (If the creator of that feed ever reads this, please know that you have brought me bright joy). I look for them in all sorts of skies, and I see them in the shape of the hawks, sea eagles and swamp harriers that are far more common where I live, at least to my eyes. Baker’s obsession and sorrow and love for the peregrine has taken hold in me. When flocks of starlings take to the air I yank my neck upwards, searching for ‘that cloud-biting anchor shape, that crossbow flinging through the air’ of a peregrine. And I find that when I am confronted with grim sights, such as a monster sunning itself on a safe street, I can console myself, at least to some degree, with Baker’s infectious ecstasy, and the fact that his great love was not, as he believed, doomed. Ghouls like Abetz still exist; but so too do falcons.
Robbie Arnott is the author of Flames. He lives in Hobart.