Sublime and beautiful, violently poetic and gently observant, J. A. Baker weaves an unsettlingly fervent non-narrative account of the deadliest and fastest hunters of the sky. His almost stoic language stands as the absolute greatest nonfiction prose I’ve ever read. The Peregrine isn’t about birdwatching or nature; it’s about the shame and disgust of what it means to be human in a world full of beauty that we ignore and violate and disseminate; it’s about a grotesque evolution of our species compared to the refined, inimitable grace achieved by predators. It’s an account of a man so intolerant of his own existence that he actually wishes he could will himself into becoming a hawk.
A little research into the author suggests that he was suffering from some terminal illness, possibly with mental deficiencies as well. Who knows if this motivated him to spend more than 10 years observing these creatures, then to write an account over the course of 7 months (from autumn to spring); yet his obsession with this diminishing species of bird helped to reinvent language and the way stories are told.
An example of the lyrical gift of his writing:
“[The Peregrine] mounted like a rocket, curved over in splendid parabola, dived down through cumulus of pigeons. One bird fell back, gashed dead, looking astonished, like a man falling out of a tree. The ground came up and crushed it.”
And another passage:
“East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails behind land. Hill trees mass together in a dark-spired forest, but when I move towards them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow.”
Finally, because it’s too beautiful not to share:
“And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending – hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and snow filling the bill’s wide silent scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk’s beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away. And for the hawk, resting now on the soft flaccid bulk of his prey, there was a rip and tear of choking feathers, and hot blood dripping from the hook of the beak, and rage dying slowly to a small hard core within.”
I could cite this entire book it’s so beautifully crafted and visual. Even the preface carries a wonderful milieu in singing its praises. As a filmmaker, I feel reading it has helped me write my own stories in more vibrantly colourful language. As a reader, I felt I went on the journey with Mr. Baker – felt the cold, crisp air burning hot in his lungs as he trudged through deep snow, panting to keep up with his idol-hunter.
Although some people may find the non-narrative structure difficult to follow, I would suggest reading this like as you would view the scenery on a pastoral stroll: there isn’t an objective or goal to reach; it is all for your enjoyment.