My favourite sentence in JA
Peregrine is “The hardest
thing of all to see is what is really there”.
It comes at the start of chapter two, where Baker turns his attention towards a
discussion of what a peregrine is and the data of his observations. The
methodology, if you like, behind the book’s slow unhinging from the human
world, to that of the falcon’s. It is my favourite sentence not because it encapsulates
the bird or the book in its entirety but because it encapsulates the writing.
You can read The Peregrine
many times and it will change and shift. You will notice new things, new
sentences, overlooked details. It is like going birding, repeatedly in the same
spot, and seeing different birds every time.
I spent the summer working with The
Peregrine exploring the
archive of pollution in its writing, within the toxic context of writing about
polluted places. As usual at the end of a long project I can’t retreat back
into books. Instead on holiday with my partner and her family in Cornwall, at
the wet, salt-glazed selvedge of England, we retreated into wildlife and the
basic elements. Sea breeze, salt air, granite and heather again. We found three
peregrines. A big adult female skimming the fields between Cape Cornwall and St
Just. A bulky swarthy juvenile bludgeoned through a rainbow off the Lands End
cliffs. The most spectacular was another juvenile, a small tiercel, tussling
with a raven: stooping at a bird it couldn’t possibly catch, flashing its
talons, carving up the air every side of it. The raven rolled over, raised its
claws and barked. The falcon thought again and circled through the air, tucked
its wings in and fell to earth like a dead weight.
I never saw if
it was a successful stoop. I think it probably wasn’t – it is not the first
time I have seen a young peregrine repeatedly circling, hassling and stooping
over prey it has no hope of catching, as if it was playing, practicing,
sharpening its reactions on the whetstone of actual living prey. At the same
time, if I hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Peregrines
playing with ravens? Yeah right. Once a birder, always an incorrigible sceptic.
When I first
read The Peregrine I regarded it as the ornithological gospel truth. The
second time I read The Peregrine I thought it was an extraordinarily
written piece of fiction, unavoidably stringy (string: the birding slang for
made up, hoax observations). Ever since then, every time I read it, I change my
opinion about it. My inkling is that its more contentious observations will
eventually be proven true, or at least possible. In the past few years urban
peregrines have been recorded hunting woodcock after dark, which Baker
mentions. I recently came across a short paper about a peregrine hovering –
again behaviour mentioned by Baker that I had in the past regarded as being
impossible. These behaviours might be really there, but the hardest thing to
see. Baker is, in the terms of Immanuel Kant, an “enlightened” observer –
committed to the truth of his own impressions, observations and thought,
without relying on received wisdom – or myth.
question of authenticity and Baker never goes away, though I dearly wish it
would. Nothing is gained or taken away by pronouncing on the veracity of a text
with a rubber stamp of truthful authenticity or fiction. That is as bad as
people who would reduce the text to being about one thing, confidently
pronouncing on the meaning of The Peregrine as if it was a fixed, easily
the summer exploring it as a depiction of its time and place, I still think
it’s a pre-eminent example of a portrayal of a landscape poisoned by “the
filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals” (15), a place where for the falcons
“foul poison burned within them like a burrowing fuse. Their life was a lonely
death, and would not be renewed” (118). Derek Ratcliffe, the naturalist who
discovered the eggshell-thinning effect of DDT, wrote in his monograph The
Peregrine Falcon, that had the decline of the peregrine in the 1950s and
early 60s continued unabated, “extinction of the Peregrine in Britain could
have occurred by 1967”
— the year when The Peregrine was first published. It is important not
to forget this, or forget about the persistence of chemicals in the
environment. Due to DDT’s chemical stability it remains present in the environment
to the point where in 2002 still “No living organism may be considered
persists due to its potency. In its synthesis of science and poetry it is, I
think, unparalleled – a pre-eminent example of how to write about nature. Six
years ago when I first read of his aim to follow the peregrines of Essex “till
my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of
colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye” (41). I thought, for
six years, that deep fovea was just a poetic expression of the materials of
vision, one with a nice tang of Romantic mystery about it. It wasn’t until a
week ago, reading Tim Birkhead’s excellent Bird Sense that I discovered
falcons have two foveae. The fovea is the part of the retina where the visual
image is sharpest. Where a bird has two, one works for close up and one does
distant vision. In Birkhead’s words, “the deep fovea… acts like a convex lens
in a telephoto lens, effectively increasing the length of the eye and
magnifying the image to provide very high resolution”.
thing of all to see… Baker attracts light. Writers Robert Macfarlane, Mark
Cocker and the academic David Farrier have all discussed Baker’s prose in terms
of light – as luminous, or flaring – as well as his use of light. Where we have
light, vision follows. Macfarlane also describes Baker as having “an obsession
(ocular, oracular) with the eyeball”,
adding that “One of the many exhilarations of reading The Peregrine is
that we acquire some version of the vision of a peregrine” (154). The more I
learn about peregrines the more I realize the extent to which Baker’s writing
embodies them. Further and deeper than just the aerial perspective Macfarlane
talks about. Baker’s writing is like the magnified, high-resolution vision of
the peregrine’s own deep fovea.
 J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), 19.
 Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T&AD Poyser, 1993), 324.
 Vladimir Turosov, Valery Rakitsky, Lorenzo Tomatis, ‘Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT): Ubiquity, Persistence, and Risks’, Environmental Health Perspectives, V. 110, No.2 (February 2002), 125-128 (125).
 Tim Birkhead, Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird (London, Bloomsbury, 2012), 17.
 Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), 141.