The Peregrine, by John A. Baker, may not be the best nature book I’ve ever read, but I can’t think of a better one. And it’s certainly the most beautiful. The book is not very well known—I came across it in an online review (another is here)—and the author is nearly completely obscure. We’re not even sure when he died (one report gives 1987), although he was born in 1926. The book, a short 190 pages, recounts a six-month period, from October to early April, when Baker tramped the fields of Essex near his home, searching for the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). At the time, the species was severely endangered, for the use of DDT, working its way through the food chain, was damaging the bird’s reproduction.
The book, in its beauty, has the air of an elegy, not just for the falcon, but for humanity in general and perhaps for the author himself: some say that he went on his falcon quest soon after being diagnosed with a fatal illness. And the book is hypnotic: day after day Baker goes searching for falcons, usually finding them. They become sufficiently accustomed to his presence that he can often approach quite closely, and they even follow him on his peregrinations—the bird and the verb have the same Latin root, meaning “to journey”—hoping he’ll flush some prey.
And that’s the plot: man goes out, man watches falcon and other birds, man goes home. You’d think that this narrative, continued over nearly 200 pages, would be boring. It’s not, for it’s sustained by the gorgeous prose and Baker’s unique way of seeing. If you buy this book, though—and I STRONGLY recommend that you do—don’t read it in one gulp. That would be like eating five desserts in a row. I allotted myself twenty pages per night.
Every day this week I’ll be featuring a video of the peregrine and an excerpt from the book. Today’s video uses a tiny camera mounted on the falcon to show its amazing speed and agility, which serve it well as an aerial predator specializing on birds on the wing. A bonus is a clip of a goshawk threading its way at high speed through a woodland:
The jays were silent. One flew heavily up, carrying an acorn in its wide-open bill. Leaving the cover of the trees, it rose high above the meadows, making for the hillside wood four hundred yards away. I could see the big acorn bulging its mandibles apart, like a lemon stuffed in the mouth of a boar’s head. There was a sibilant purring sound, like the distant drumming of a snipe. Something blurred and hissed behind the jay, which seemed suddenly to trip and stumble on the air. The acorn spurted out of its bill, like the cork out of a bottle. The jay fell all lopsidedly and threshing, as though it were having a fit. The ground killed it. The peregrine swooped, and carried the dead bird to an oak. There he plucked and ate it, gulping the flesh hastily down, till only the wings, breast-bone, and tail were left.
Gluttonous, hoarding jay; he should have hedge-hopped and lurched from tree to tree in his usual furtive manner. He should never have bared the white flashes of his wings and rump to the watching sky. He was too vivid a mark, as he dazzled slowly across the green water-meadows.