Monday, February 27, 2012

Natural Born Killers: J. A. Baker's The Peregrine

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.

I intend by this comparison no denigration of Baker or of his beautiful book; it’s simply that the force of his fascination with death and violence broaches psychological areas on which such more sinister tales of obsession and violence are constructed. Baker’s stated intention at the beginning of The Peregrine is to sap the power of the word “predator” as applied to peregrines, since nearly all birds exhibit carnivorous traits and – more to the point – the peregrines’ rapaciousness has nothing on that of man. Baker’s success at describing the gruesomeness of death is perhaps only exceeded by his ability to describe - with devastating economy - the dismaying impact of pollutants, poisons and other manmade agents of destruction. Few books convey so strongly the wanton predations of human beings and our malign unconsciousness of the natural world around us. In one passage, Baker observes a man on a sea wall completely oblivious to a cloud of savage avian activity occurring directly above his head. With a nearly theological power, this scene limns the lamentable ridiculousness of our human ignorance of the unseen, unnoticed universe we inhabit. The creatures above the man’s head might as well be angels. And if one will never look at a bird the same way again after reading The Peregrine, it’s even more likely that one will emerge with a lasting awareness of the wild battles of life and death going on in those ostensibly tranquil marshes, forests and skies, and of the toxic bumblings of humanity that threaten not only the natural world, but also something wild and vital in ourselves. 


  1. I hope you'll forgive me for adding yet another Bolaño reference here, Scott, but it's hard to think of the attack scenes you describe without thinking of similar fictional scenes in Bolaño's By Night in Chile where bird of prey attacks on pigeons in Europe recall the Pinochet-era Operation Condor war on "subversives." As for Baker's work more generally, it sounds like a powerful but unsettling read. I think I might appreciate reading it at some point, but I'm glad you warned me about how gruesome it is because I'm not sure my parents, bird lovers both, would have appreciated this as a gift!

  2. Richard - I'd completely forgotten about the birds of prey in By Night in Chile. Raptors apparently make for good metaphors. Your parents might like The Peregrine despite the brutality; most of the reviews I've read skirt it altogether and focus on Baker's intense lyricism and unusually poetic style (I'd read the Bayer book first, so blame that for my more cynical perspective). There's certainly enough rapturous appreciation of the natural world here that I'd imagine most bird lovers would be far more fascinated than appalled.

  3. Guy - I have not, but wow, bird of prey + Ken Loach? One of these days when I'm feeling overly cheerful I'll have to watch it (kidding - thanks for the tip).

  4. Birds and poetry? I'll read it! But can I handle the "grisly details"? Loved the whimsy in your writing, too: "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."

  5. Thanks, Mary-Anna. You can handle it :).