I knew right away that The Peregrine, J. A. Baker’s slim 1967 book about peregrine hawks, would be unlike any naturalist’s book I’d encountered before. Baker follows two opening paragraphs of detailed description of landscape by suddenly swooping down mercilessly on his own narrative: “Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious.” I learned of The Peregrine from Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes, who listed it among his end-of-year favorites and in his review - which highlights some of the book's best passages - likened it to Moby Dick. This rather hyperbolic claim is one with which I now concur. To drag an old canard out into the open, saying that The Peregrine is a book about birds is like saying that Moby Dick is a book about…well, I don’t need to complete that. But The Peregrine does carry a similar weight and quality of obsession and the sense that its subjects range into territory well beyond the guileless promise of its simple title.
I love books like this, that appear to be one thing and turn out to be something quite else. Readers expecting a history of falconry or granular details of peregrine biology should look elsewhere. Without doubt, The Peregrine presents a fascinating naturalist’s appreciation of peregrine hawks, detailing their habits and behaviors and physical characteristics. And yes, as a naturalist’s book it fits a pattern, effectively and affectingly, of bemoaning man’s senseless destruction of nature and the tragic decline of a species. Baker also makes it impossible for one not to notice birds – any bird – and that is reason enough to value The Peregrine. But this is also a wildly personal, idiosyncratic, poetically daring book, not one of tender feelings or detached, scientific analysis. Baker is no Farley Mowat, lugging along a wealth of scientific background to go and live peaceably among the animals then returning to civilization to report on what they’re up to. Rather, Baker’s fixation with peregrines borders on madness, a kind of intimate, obsessive/compulsive ordering of the world in which he allies himself with his avian subjects, leaving those of us of his own species opposite some bitter demarcation zone. With an approach far more Grizzly Man than “Wild Kingdom,” Baker’s nearly daily rounds to observe peregrines see him gradually and furtively slipping into their world, beginning to identify with some of their characteristics and appetites (lucky for him, peregrines are not grizzly bears).
Baker’s distinctive style employs unusual verbs and adjectives in descriptions that create an untamed, sharp-edged narrative nonetheless arresting in its ability to capture certain scenes or experiences with stunning lyrical beauty. I repeatedly had to stop and relish a descriptive line or phrase. A lot of writers exhibit a magician’s dexterity with adjectives; few, though, come close to Baker’s exploitation of the descriptive potential of the verb. Skies “brim” with cloud; birds are “threshed up” from field and furrow, then “shoulder,” “jink,” and “claw” the air.
Early on, Baker warns us that he’ll “try to make plain the bloodiness of killing.” That he does, and how. Nature is red in beak and claw in The Peregrine, as on page after page Baker describes the brutal, explosively swift attacks of the peregrines and the ravaged bodies, crushed skulls and torn flesh of their victims. There are dozens of such descriptions:
He is overtaken, cut down. He drops with a squelching thud. The hawk lands on the softening bird, grips its neck in his bill. I hear the bone snap, like barbed wire cut by pliers. He nudges the dead bird over. Its wings wave, then it lites on its back. I hear the tearing of feathers, the tug of flesh, the crack and snap of gristle. I can see the black blood dripping from the gleam of the hawk’s bill.
Filing each day’s observations, Baker amasses a compendium of such murders that has a cumulative impact on the reader (in one of those accidents of juxtaposition, having read Roberto Bolaño just prior to picking up The Peregrine, I could not help but think of the similar concussive effect of the terrible catalog of murders in Bolaño’s 2666). More often than once, Baker’s morbid accounts drift into a nearly manic fascination with violence and death:
A day of blood; of sun, snow, and blood. Blood-red! What a useless adjective that is. Nothing is as beautifully, richly red as flowing blood on snow. It is strange that the eye can love what mind and body hate.
Compared to his interest in the birds’ plumage or their agile aerial acrobatics, Baker’s focus on the audacity of the attacks and the grisly details of their aftermath takes on a special, almost pathological flavor. It’s enough to make one wonder: What does this person do when he’s not out observing birds? How is his apparently solitary life (he mentions no friend, companion or even acquaintance) organized such that he can spend whole days observing his subjects, heedless of inclement weather, without apparent obligations on his time? Unlike those convocations of Sunday birdwatchers, together compiling lists of the birds they’ve sighted, Baker is pronounced in his solitariness, and his spectacularly voluptuous descriptions of death don’t fit any sort of scientific approach. This lends his narrative an eerily steady, practically creepy tone, a frisson of madness that makes his innocent birdwatching come across as akin to the stalker-ish obsessions of John Fowles’ Frederick Clegg in The Collector or those of the homicidal photographer in Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom.
It’s little surprise, then, to find these characteristics amplified in a book that seems to give the aberrant elements of Baker’s psychology a wicked push: mystery writer William Bayer’s Peregrine, in which Baker’s obsessive pathology and the effective killing machines that are his beloved tiercels and falcons come together in a grimly tongue-in-cheek crime novel in which peregrines are used as murder weapons. Bayer culls the cream (and the blood) from a modus operandi like Baker’s and makes them…well…blood-curdling (sorry). Bayer’s peregrines stoop from the sky at ferocious speeds to kill their human prey, just as they do their non-human victims in Baker’s book.