The Peregrine by J. A. Baker

The Peregrine by J. A. Baker describes the daily comings and goings of a pair of peregrine falcons across the flat fen lands of Essex, England.

the-peregrine

The author followed the birds obsessively, observing them in the air and on the ground, while they pursued their prey, made theirs kills and eat them. As he does so, he seems to begin to lose his humanness and take on some of the aspects of the birds he is following so obsessively.

Written in 1967, the book has won various prizes and has been feted for its brilliance. BBC Wildlife Magazine describes it as “one of the finest works on nature ever written.” Robert Macfarlane says it is “a masterpiece of twentieth-century non-fiction.” In the words of other reviewers, the book “transcends any nature writing of our time,”, and is “one of the most beautifully written, carefully observed and evocative wildlife accounts I have ever read.”

However, I have to admit that I have problems with The Peregrine.

I read it first in 1974, and then again more recently. While Mr. Baker’s observational skills are second to none, and his descriptions at times are breathtaking, a thought kept appearing in my mind with worrying frequency: “Do I believe all this?”

If everything he describes is true, then Mr. Baker is indeed a naturalist among naturalists, and I am in awe of him. Personally though, I find myself doubting the veracity of his records. Some of his experiences just sound so out of the world, as if (I whisper it in case I am upsetting naturalists worldwide) he’d found and eaten a few too many magic mushrooms in the fields where he was walking.

I give just one example.

January 27. He sees a great snipe (so it’s already a red-letter day considering the rarity of this bird). Then he finds two dead herons. He spots some otter tracks. He watches as a moorhen gets pulled underwater by a pike. He enters a shed and pulls the body of a frozen, dead barn owl off the rafters. While examining it something hits the shed roof, slithers down the roof and falls at the author’s feet. It’s a wounded wood pigeon that has just been hit by a hunting peregrine. Baker kills it, tosses it into the field, and watches as the peregrine returns to its prey. Finally, having seen enough for the day, he goes home. Oh, on his way home he disturbs a fox eating a pheasant.

Now, any single one of those experiences is remarkable. Put two of them together and you have a very special day. Three and it’s an absolutely unique day. But ALL of them, one after another? Time and time again Baker seems to be exactly in the right spot, at the right time, for a series of incredible close-to-nature experiences.

Presumably The Peregrine has been studied and analyzed by naturalists much wiser than I am who have verified his sightings, but personally, I have problems believing everything I read in this book. I tried to put my doubts to one side and focus on the writing, but consistently failed.

Maybe you will have greater success.

 

6 comments

  1. It would indeed be remarkable to see so many notable things in a single day but I think there are some points to be made in Baker’s defence.
    My understanding is that he followed peregrines for something like ten years in total but, as a literary device, condensed his observations into an account of a single winter. This inevitably results in a rather impressive frequency of remarkable encounters but I don’t think we are required to believe that it was literally true that he observed everything he describes in a single winter (or in the case of the specific examples you give, on a single day). You can judge for yourself whether he achieves an artistic truth – i think he does – but it is not a scientific report he is writing and he is surely entitled to re-arrange his facts for his artistic purpose (just as a wildlife painter might paint a combination of animal, behaviour and background that he never observed together in real life)?
    The day he describes in the passage you refer to occurs within an extended sequence of bitterly cold weather (presumably the winter of 1963) and the discovery of the various dead, birds in those circumstances is quite credible. When working as a biologist in the Camargue in the 1980s I experienced an extended period of extremely cold weather and my colleagues and I found huge numbers (thousands) of dead water birds including herons, egrets, flamingos, whilst also observing unusual concentrations and behaviours of living birds (I caught a live water rail in my garden, for example) so I can vouch for the fact that in extreme weather conditions you can expect to find lots of dead birds and see many other birds in unusual proximity and in unusual places. Foxes have always been common and in a situation where large numbers of birds are dying of cold there would be no great surprise in encountering one in the process of devouring a carcass.
    The Great Snipe he sees is described as ‘probably a great snipe’. ‘Possibly’ might have been a more realistic word to use and certainly no county recording scheme would have accepted this as a valid record. I agree that the reference did jolt me when I read it and I think Baker would have been better advised to leave it out of his account – had he described at just a snipe it would not have lessened the artistic impact of his account.
    I am not sure of the extent to which otters had already declined at the time Baker was tramping around his patch of Essex coastland. Happily, otters have made a strong comeback in recent years and are present in every English county as far as I know. There would be nothing exceptionally remarkable about finding otter tracks today in many parts of the country (certainly not where I live in the NE of England) and if otters were still present in Baker’s part of Essex in the early 1960s it would not have been especially surprising to find tracks.
    So, a remarkable ‘day’ but perhaps not stretching the bounds of credibility quite as much as you suggest?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jonathan, and many apologies for not replying to your insightful comment earlier, but I found it hiding at the bottom of my Spam comments! You are right; he is not writing a scientific treatise but an artistic compilation of many observations over many years. I guess that was my scientific training coming to the fore! And I welcome your first-hand knowledge of a really hard winter and its effect on wildlife. Certainly 1963 was a bitter winter and must have led to huge losses. As to snipe and otters … it was mainly the combination of all the sightings in one day that made me sit up and take notice, not the individual sightings per se. Aside from all this, I was wondering what you thought of the book as a whole?

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