Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.
J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine sets out its agenda early on. He wishes, through extensive exposure to the bird, to gain insight into its wild life. It is all the plot there is, this steady obsession, this unending observance, this devotion. As the book goes on, he gets closer and closer to the creature and the descriptions veer toward the bizarre, an intimacy and an otherness that might make some feel uncomfortable. Later, there is a blurring of boundaries and a loss of identity. It is at once a natural history and a natural fantasy.
Baker writes with an enraptured understanding of the descriptive. It is a book to go with, to unhinge your normal critical faculties for, in many ways more like a song than a piece of nature writing, and as such the way you read it will affect your view. I read it twice, once slowly, a few passages at a time (the longest section, the main act, is laid out as a diary or a journal, several months split into daily entries, where Baker tracks the peregrines that live near his home); and then quickly – it is less than 200 pages all told – like a novel. This was less satisfactory. Although it has a handful of genuinely thrilling set-pieces, a kill early on scatters blood and feathers across the page in short, brittle sentences like a fierce pulp novel, this is not really what The Peregrine is about, and lends it a false aspect. It is to be savoured. There are some genuinely brilliant passages here.
The wind-shred banner of the autumn light spanned the green headland between the two estuaries. The east wind drove drenching grey and silver showers through the frozen cider sky. Birds rose from ploughland as a merlin flew above them, small and brown and swift, lifting dark against the sky, dipping and swerving down along the furrows. All brown or stubbled fields shivered and glittered with larks: all green were pied with plover. Quiet lanes brindled with drifting leaves.
With a word or a phrase he places you at the spot: sparrows “rustle through the leaves like rain”; moored boats “peck” at the water.
Throughout, Baker’s intention is to lose himself; but not just that, because, oh God, that is such a tired and impotent phrase. An element of it is true, yes, but there is so much more to it than that. He actually wants to be part of “the outward life” as he calls it. To “let the human taint wash away”. He means this literally. And of course it is an almost impossible thing to realise, and he knows that. Like Baker, it is common to feel, in walking in wildernesses, that you are a blaring cacophony of dirty, smudged civilisation. Feel your boots plunge into the crushing earth, your smell and noise send the fauna scuttling away into the dark to wait as you pass. It is a terrible reality, an ugly burden.
I rarely walk with others. I am drawn to the quiet and the contemplative by my own nature. I am not sure that I would describe it as a particularly selfish or miserable choice, it is just the way that it is. I doubt I’m alone in wanting to be alone, of course.
No, it has as much to do with the enabling qualities as anything else. And by that I don’t mean the simple philosophies of ‘go where you want’ and ‘please yourself’.
The walk is not the the thing. The thing is the stopping. The tranquility comes with the rest, the stillness, what De La Mare described in The Listeners as the silence surging softly backward after all the noises have gone. It’s then – and it may take an age for it to happen, and it might not happen at all – that the sounds that were there before me, begin to return. It is such a simple thing, but it can be unattainable.
Weeks ago, with the very newest lacerations of green appearing in the dark and musty hedgerows, I sat with my back to an oak tree and let the world reclaim itself. In front, a fallow field, brown and rough with bramble and thistle, ruffled against the wind. Above the untidy grasses, branching towers and turrets of dipsacus, spiny teasels, dried-out seed cases, that moved briskly as the breeze shifted around the field. A goldfinch landed. And another, and another. I cannot know if I was part of their assessment as they alighted so close to me. Was I a risk, did they consider me as they shoved their beaks deep into the crackling prickles?
The enabling is apparent then, and wholly personal. Goldfinches are common enough, I saw one in my unexceptional urban garden this morning, but for a second, for an instant, the intense and the cinematic happened. The dolly zoom picks you up and shoves you forward. It takes you close and shifts everything else out of focus.
It places you with the primal and the wild. Next to it, up against it, maybe even for a moment, with it. I think you have to feel their strangeness, even be afraid of it. We are not used to the stillness of such things. They should give us pause, they should make us shiver.
And despite the oddness and the otherness, there is a glory in those seconds. But it is too quickly washed away by our educated, average experience.