Book Review

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

To discover The Peregrine is to discover the secret of flight: to betray humankind and beat a great retreat; to flee beyond the horizon. It is a convergence of the midpoints of lines drawn by the swooping birds in glinting light and breaking cloud.

On the surface, The Peregrine is a piece of nature writing in which the author/narrator spends the period from October to April tirelessly following two pairs of peregrines, which have arrived in autumn to hunt, over a small stretch of coastal East Anglia. The opening sections are used to give a rough outline of the make-up of the landscape and detail the size and characteristics of the birds themselves: food sources, colour variation, prey etc. What follows after is a broken diary of the walks taken by Baker in his search for these elusive birds.

In those initial segments one may already recognise the germination of the narrator’s desire for transmogrification. To...

let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence... to return to the town as a stranger. Wandering flushes a glory that fades with arrival.

This is not a straight metamorphosis from man into bird. In this initial moment the tropes of betrayal and flight, which are at the core of Baker’s work, are merely posited. Assembling them here in microcosm, one sees that despite the narrator’s initial assertion of the desire to leave his humanity behind, it is not a specific taxonomic or geographic destination which is the most important, it is merely to wander. There is no future and no past. All that Baker has, like the peregrine, is the present: the next spot, the next kill, the next hedge, the next sunset.

So, the wandering begins. Baker’s diary entries record his movements over the land. The birds, the woods and the light are described in fantastic descriptive language: the golden plovers shimmer like sails, the river estuary ‘opens its mouth’ and the peregrine’s glitter like shields. Their dives cut and slash the sky like scimitars. Despite this exuberance of description mixed with scientific detail, any notion of precise geographical location is consciously avoided. One is aware, as one has been told, that it is the same stretch of ground each day over which the narrator treads. However the experience of reading is cyclical. The vagueness and lack of spatial signifiers makes each hunt seem fresh, a new day brings a new landscape to identical terrain.

Therefore, despite the establishing work done to construct a familiar rural English environment in the landscape, the narrator’s explicit knowledge of the terrain he inhabits only increases his ability to become lost within it.

Baker’s writing deterritorialises the reader. It swoops and dives amid the flocks and beams of light, tracing myriad flights across the same skies, a whole cartography of convergent lines which defamiliarise the narrator’s own lands. The English countryside becomes a foreign wilderness. These almost angelic descriptions, coupled with the complete lack of directional or architectural features (only magnetic compass points and natural features are used: copse, marsh, and valley), further negate the notion of a journey or voyage to anywhere. The walks instead resemble, in their repetition both in terms of their lyric descriptiveness and in their actual content, the stumbling attempts of a young bird turning its back on the dark earth and attempting to take flight.

It is this characteristic of the book which cements the overarching ‘Englishness’ that pertains throughout The Peregrine. One easily accepts that in some sense this is the countryside so often present in Anglo-centric literature. And yet, like DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow, it manages to go beyond this by this idea of losing oneself between fixed points, of becoming isolated and lost in the familiar, the grass growing wild between well-trod paving slabs.

Through this process of wandering Baker manages to avoid the reterritorialisation which lies in wait for the narrator. The repetition of this act is paramount here. In fleeing the world of man he is in danger of becoming once again within its confines and values but the constant experience of the marshlands and hedgerows, the same ones, this is his destruction. It destroys the point of origin, the anchor, and the point of conclusion: interrupting into a broken line of flight resembling that which the peregrine above draws in the winter sky.

The narrator however is not a nomad, nor is he embarking on anything organised or linear enough to constitute any kind of voyage. There is no implication of re-immersion in another land. It is not a journey of escape from one’s homeland, this too often merely results in re-imprisonment on foreign soil. The narrator flees by remaining still, there are no past chains being cast off in exchange or any future ones awaiting. He simply becomes ungrounded through his repeated pursuit and his human past dissipates. ‘A clean break is such because it is irretrievable, the past ceases to exist.’

Further, one encounters the conception of The Peregrine as a betrayal. A betrayal of the established laws of mankind whose trickery of nature has left: ‘many to die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals.’ The peregrines are an escape. Baker has rejected the world of man. When the subject of humanity does arise, its presence repulses him.

Baker turns his back on the human world of pesticides and factories, chemicals and continual droning. But it is a double rejection, for the world of man turns its own back, to face away from him. They are the enemy. The betrayal here is a double turning away: Baker turns away from man. Who in turn turns his face away from Baker. Humanity abandons him for the town as he abandons them for the sky. He is a traitor.

The line of flight always entails betrayal. This is the ordinary betrayal of a man who simply has no past or future. He betrays the fixed powers of the earth. The narrator has become a traitor. In choosing peregrines over humans he creates a bird-becoming. This is not a simply transformation or metamorphosis of man into bird. There is not start or end point. There is a short circuit which deterritorialises both himself and the bird. In seeking them peregrines and acquiring their habits the narrator not only moves along the line towards the bird, becoming wild and predatory, the peregrine too becomes used to him, behaves with increasingly human emotions projected onto it. It has a man-becoming.

He does not transform directly into the animal, declaring loudly ‘I am a bird now’ that would be a conjuror’s trick. A traitor, he allows his identity to disappear. Baker thus becomes increasingly invisible, indistinguishable from the oaks and the feathers. This imperceptibility, a characteristic of the speed and greatest slowness, is the embodiment of the traitor. The narrator’s ego disappears in repetition and lack of movement: in stillness and shrub. The identity of the birds, for its part, becomes imperceptible at the other end of the scale.

It is here with this imperceptibility which one encounters the crux of The Peregrine. The ideas of deterritorialisation and becoming allow it to relate to the process of writing itself.

The writing which Baker has produced here is an assemblage: a multiplicity of terms which establish relations across different natures, functioning together in symbiosis. These relations are countless. One of the most simple and obvious examples is the technological apparatus of the binoculars. They allow his eyes to move beyond the confines of human sight and function as the birds’ eyes do: for hunting. This creates a relation of sight between Baker and the peregrines. Everywhere the converging lines within the overall assemblage map the space around that mid-point which cannot be expressed.

This is true of writing as well. The author’s goal is to move beyond writing, to become something other: becoming a traitor to the process of writing. The assemblage releases something which cannot be fixed or defined. This is no more clearly expressed than in one of the book’s early sentences: ‘In my diary of a single winter I have tried to preserve a unity, binding together the bird, the watcher, and the place that holds them both.’

This unity is bound to the idea of imperceptibility. The narrator becomes the peregrine only by the peregrine becoming something other: light, colour, shape and sound. Both enter into a variety of becomings resulting from the process of deterritorialisation.

Everything which becomes is a pure line which ceases to represent whatever it may be.

The unity or symbiosis then is something beyond that which can be fixed or defined. This is reminiscent of Blanchot’s statement, which epitomises this idea and distils the goal of The Peregrine. That the assemblage process Baker’s writing exposes through deterritorialisation seeks to discover: ‘that part of the event which its accomplishment cannot realise.’

The originality and lyrical beauty of his method of composing this symbiosis is often breath-taking. Baker’s radical approach to nature writing forms a similar symbiosis to that pertaining in the figure of the modernist traitor or anti-hero. The author is the wanderer who is in continual motion, with no destination or name, who is sometimes hurried sometimes immobilized, his past and future do not exist as he travels along the abstract line which carries him off.

-- Reviewed by Dan Fraser on 31/07/2012

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1590171330
ISBN-13: 9781590171332
Publisher: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: 15/02/2005
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 208

Readers Comments

  1. This is a very fine and helpful understanding of this amazing book. Readers may also want to look out the 'collected' Baker in John Fanshawe's Collins hardback edition of The Peregrine which also contains The Hill of Summer and extracts from Baker's diaries. Published in 2010.

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