Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Peregrine by J. A. Baker

Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk.  The ground became a branch to my feet, the sun on my eyelids was heavy and warm.  Like the hawk, I heard and hated the sound of man, that faceless horror of the stony places.  I stifled in the same filthy sack of fear.  I shared the same hunter's longing for the wild home none can know, alone with the sight and smell of the quarry, under the indifferent sky.  I felt the pull of the north, the mystery and fascination of the migrating gulls.  I shared the same strange yearning to be gone.  I slept into the feather-light sleep of the hawk.  Then I woke him with my waking.

In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald describes how much she dislikes J. A. Baker's The Peregrine.  As someone who knows and trains hawks, she finds Baker's sense of a hawk's alienness off-putting.  Though Macdonald warns against easy anthropomorphizing, she sees in her hawks a number of moods--playfulness, fear, shyness--that aren't represented in Baker's account of peregrine falcons, whom he describes mostly as single-minded murder machines.

The Peregrine is a strange book.  It really is very little more than a diary following the movements of a pair of peregrine falcons on the northeast coast of England from the fall through the spring of a single year.  Baker watches his hawks sleep, kill, eat, soar, and play games with their prey.  His observations are drawn with an understated poetic flair: the peregrine flies in a "tremendous wing-lit parabola"; it drives apart a flock of gulls, "shattering them apart like flinging white foam."  But I don't think the most exquisite poetry in the world could keep The Peregrine from being what it is: a six-month birdwatching diary.

I suspect part of the problem is me.  Do I lack such a sense of the variety of the natural world that the finely-tuned observations of The Peregrine are lost on me?  We lack a language of flora and fauna in the 21st century; we see trees instead of sycamores and oaks, flowers instead of columbine and thistle.  I wonder if, in another time and place, I would be more sensitive to the kinds of landscape that Baker describes.  I might have more patience then, and be able to see the finer distinctions being made.  But still, there's little drama to The Peregrine beyond the quotidian and repetitive game in which the peregrines hunt and kill ducks and mice.

Baker finds himself, after months of watching and writing, turning into a peregrine himself, turning away from human society (not that there's any in this book to turn away from) and sympathizing with the hawk's indifference to anything but hunting.  The transformation is incomplete, of course, because Baker can never enter the peregrines' confidence: "No pain, no death, is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man," he writes.  The hawk regards him as "part hawk, part man; worth flying over to look at from time to time, but never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper."  Kind of like Brundlefly, I guess--Bakerhawk?

Honestly, I didn't believe it.  First of all, I don't think a dude that spends six months tramping around the countryside doing nothing but birdwatching needs to be seduced into being indifferent or antisocial.  But mostly, it feels too stagey, too inevitable, too much like a desperate injection of mysticism.  A refusal, perhaps, to let the book be the mundane and quotidian thing that it really is.

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