Man Becoming Bird
Peregrine Falcon in treetop, Bruno Liljefors, 1860-1939
by Felix Haas
by J.A. Baker,
New York Review Books, 208 pp.
Imagine a land untouched by civilization, unstained by man’s machines. Imagine a land where cities and roads and electric lights only live on the far horizons edging its borders, where concrete and steel are ideas so remote, no one has dreamt them up yet. This land is not only inhabited by man, but a strange multitude of species. They differ in color, physiognomy and size – the largest being many times the size of the smallest. Their differences however, do not exhaust with their appearances. The most stunning can be found in their behavioral patterns, character and culture, from the most beautiful to the most brutal.
It is into such a world – a world of fantasy, beauty and raw cruelty – that J.A. Baker’s book The Peregrine invites us. And yes, the choice against the word “novel” is deliberate. However great the amount of wonder and fantasy we find, it remains a book of non-fiction. The creatures we find populating its pages are not human, but avian. The further we dig, the more Baker’s writing blurs the line between species, and we come to recognize that The Peregrine is not a book about bird becoming man, but about man becoming bird.
The plot of this near 200 page book is quickly summarized: From October till April, Baker follows two peregrine falcons who have taken to hunting the valleys of East Anglia. This premise is one which makes for either a wonderfully poetic or a dreadfully boring read. Baker has forged something that clearly falls into the former category. Nonetheless, you have to be careful in how you approach this book, for its beauty is in language, rather than plot. And so, you might see it necessary to exercise the same kind of diligence in reading Baker’s writing that you might with the works of a Virginia Woolf. Both exude mesmerizing beauty, easily missed, when approaching them with the greedy eye that reads for thrills or extravagant plot twists.
Still, Baker’s writing cannot be called interior monologue. Where Woolf is introspective and deploys sentences which can easily span the better part of a page, Baker is at his best when his eye soars over the wide openness of East Anglia. His prose is a collection of short breaths, which nevertheless assemble to form something akin to poetry.
“The valley sinks into mist, and the yellow orbital ring of the horizon closes over the glaring cornea of the sun. The eastern ridge blooms purple, then fades to inimical black. The earth exhales into the cold dusk. Frost forms in hollows shaded from the afterglow. Owls wake and call. The first stars hover and drift down. Like a roosting hawk, I listen to the silence and gaze into the dark.”
Baker’s prose is rich with imagery, metaphors, and anthropomorphisms, whether it is the “sea [that] breathed quietly, like a sleeping dog,” or the fog that “hid the day in steamy heat… fumbling [his] face with cold decaying fingers.” This unusually dense prose brings to life a world of wonder, where “Direction has colour and meaning. [Where] South is… opaque and stifling; West is a thickening of the earth into trees, a drawing together; North is open, bleak, a way to nothing; East is a quickening in the sky, a beckoning of light…”
All throughout, his writing manages to maintain an astonishing ease and fluidity, making his words sound natural, almost inevitable, rather than forced. Baker’s perhaps greatest achievement lies in his descriptions of the countryside of Essex and East Anglia, a region only a few miles east of London, whose names tend to evoke negative stereotypes rather than the wonders of their lands.
The beauty of Baker’s world underlies a rawness of the land and of the life of the creatures that populate it. The Peregrine is told in daily accounts of its narrator’s ventures out into its valleys and fields. It is rare for any such account to end without Baker having encountered death. The Peregrine is a beautiful book, not despite, but through its depictions of death. “The snow flamed redly in the last light of the sun… The red embers of the kill shone into the dusk, pitting the snow with bright orange blood.” However, Baker refuses to extend this perceived beauty to death brought by man. “No pain, no death, is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man.” In the time The Peregrine was written, the early- and mid-sixties, the widespread use of pesticides threatened the existence of many bird species in Britain. “Many die on their backs… withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals.” And so we understand Baker’s fascination with this “dying world, like Mars, but glowing still,” and see his writing as a desperate attempt to preserve a beauty, which he fears might soon be lost.
This book of non-fiction is also one of poetry, one of mythical lands and the lives of the fantastic creatures that inhabit them. It is spun in a fast paced staccato of short sentences which build a world unlike any other we have seen. It is in this world, that we follow the narrator’s metamorphosis, see his human “I” turn into an avian “we”, and watch Baker turn falcon: “I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk… Like the hawk, I heard and hated the sound of man… I sank down and slept into the feather-light sleep of the hawk.” In this transformation, we are not mere bystanders. We are sucked into it, and cannot help but feel addressed when Baker, in the final months of his account, chooses the inclusive plural, when speaking of the soaring hawk, his hawk, us.
About the Author:
Felix Haas grew up in Berlin and went to grad school for physics and mathematics. Besides science and languages he has always had a passion for literature. Among others, his writing has appeared in World Literature Today and the Fair Observer. After years in different European, Northern and Central American countries, he now lives in Zurich.