Attenborough reads The Peregrine

March 22, 2020 • 10:45 am

I’m a sucker for good prose, and was thinking about posting some examples of my favorite writing in English, which includes the last page of Joyce’s The Dead, the last paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, and the opening page of The Jewel in the Crown. But rather than look those up, I offer you an hour of great prose read aloud by David Attenborough.

It’s from a book I first wrote about in 2010; I was excited to discover a beautiful classic that hardly anybody knew. And I still consider it the best and most lyrical book about nature ever written. (“Ring of Bright Water” is up there, too.). What I said a decade ago still holds:

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.

Reader Jeremy called my attention to a new BBC site where you can listen to the great David Attenborough reading from The Peregrine in an hourlong orgy of auditory beauty. It’s not the whole book, but will give you a taste for it. And I’d highly recommend that you buy and read the book. It’s one of those works, like the Raj Quartet, that I recommend heartily but that few people read.

Click on the screenshot below to listen to Attenborough. This will be available for 23 more days.

18 thoughts on “Attenborough reads The Peregrine

  1. The hat tip really belongs to WEIT reader Dominic, who doesn’t have internet access at home but texted asking me to pass on the link to PCC(E).

  2. For beautiful writing about beautiful writing, I highly recommend the chapter on The Peregrine in Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks.

  3. I was given to understand by my mother-in-law (RIP) that she played with David Attenborough when they were small children somewhere around Manchester. Apparently even then, his idea of playing was to go off into the woods and look for bugs. Given that she’s dead now, and was demented for a bit before that, I never had the opportunity to make any joking comment about the “right brother” (c.f. the Hitchens brothers, where there was certainly an extremely unfair separation between the ‘right’ one and, well, the one we’re left with).
    Nonetheless, said mother-in-law led a remarkable life, and possibly the least of her many achievements was to produce the daughter I met as a medical student at UCL in 1976. It is still the greatest pleasure of my life to wake up next to her (the daughter, not the dead mother-in-law! – you flaming perverts) each morning. But there we go. Such a sense of loss of individual knowledge and memories as we have to leave the party.

  4. I’ll have to check this out – it reminds me a bit of The Snow Leopard, one of my all time favorites (The Snow Leopard contains a lot of Buddhism, but also a lot of narrative about biology fieldwork… not usually my area but I felt positively invested in finding out whether the blue sheep is a sheep or a goat by the end!) A haunting nature odyssey sounds sort of perfect for the mood in the air right now.

  5. I was first alerted to The Peregrine by a Werner Herzog talk. Several online references….NYPL, Stanford talk, New Yorker…where he speaks with eloquence and passion about the book.

  6. I wonder how one could write such delicately observant prose! It feels like it is being written in situ, while still on foot on field and heather. I can’t imagine having this vivid imagination while sitting stooped over a manual typewriter in a cottage or tent.

  7. Thanks for the recommendation…just ordered it and will put it at the top of my ever growing “must read” stack of books. I started reading WEIT in 2012 I think, so your post in 2010 went unnoticed. I pretty much buy every book you recommend and haven’t been disappointed. This kinda reminds me of Helen Macdonald’s “H” Is for Hawk. Another nature book you recommended that was thoroughly engrossing; and I loved learning more about T.H. White.

  8. Alas, The Peregrine is also a favorite of the odious John Gary. But judging a book by (some of) its fans is never a good idea.

  9. Robert Macfarlane, mentioned above, may be the greatest writer on the natural landscapes today. Try wikipedia for a brief intro to his works, through last May.
    WARNING: if you are anything like me, you may find that there are now 5-6 more books that you just HAVE to read.

  10. Henry David Thoreau is rightly considered one of the great nature writers in the language, but my favorite sentence of his is this periodic one from Civil Disobedience, a masterpiece of rhetorical anti-climax:

    Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?

  11. As a child I had an audiobook of Attenborough reading Tarka The Otter. I loved it: all the qualities he has that make him such a great narrator applied perfectly to reading stories.

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