July 05, 2005

Reading Log: J. A. Baker

This is a way I would like to write:

East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark–spired forest, but when I move toward them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me toward them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.

That is the first paragraph of a book called THE PEREGRINE, written by a nearly anonymous Englishman named John Alec Baker. Nearly anonymous because his name is almost all that’s known of him. He lived in Essex and is thought to have been a librarian; he was born in 1926, but the year of his death is not known. He wrote the book after he had been diagnosed with an undisclosed illness. THE PEREGRINE, his first book, was published in 1968 and won the Duff Cooper Prize. THE HILL OF SUMMER, another nature book, was published in 1969, and that is the last we hear of him. THE PEREGRINE is dedicated “To My Wife” -- another anonymity.

Baker became obsessed with peregrine falcons and followed them for a decade, watching their kills and their matings, fusing with them in his mind until he almost thought of himself as one of them. This is how he describes learning to track them:

Approach him across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts.

These quotations are from the first chapter, which is all I’ve read of the book so far. I want to tell you about it right away.

There is a deep calm about Baker’s descriptions. To read his sentences brings peace. Even when he is describing the violence of a hawk killing in midair at two hundred and twenty miles an hour, his contemplative pen draws it as a stillness. Yet the violence is not denied or avoided. “I shall try to make plain the bloodiness of killing,” he writes. Stillness and deadly speed coexist in the same lines: motion on the surface, calm underneath.

As in most great descriptive writing, while there is sufficient physical detail for us to see the scene, the physical is only the underlayer, the preliminary wash. Though Baker does not confess the details of his life, he makes himself a presence in all he describes. We would not recognize him in his parlor or know how he sounded on the phone (if he did use the phone), but within the world he writes about we sense him as a guiding, all–seeing consciousness. “Everything I describe took place while I was watching it, but I do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behaviour of the watcher are also facts, and they must be truthfully recorded.”

That is a writing lesson. Description always implies the describer. The details may be based on facts, but they must go beyond fact. Emotional coloration, choice of vantage point, selection of detail, and verbal shading make the same physical landscape different for each writer who renders it.

In that opening paragraph, for instance, the landscape could have been described in many different ways. A peaceful Essex landscape -- what could be cozier, less adventurous? Yet Baker sees it as a stimulus to the open–ended forward movement of self-discovery, and he enlists us as fellow discoverers by luring (his word) our attention toward a series of endless horizons. Details of the unseen -- “distant water,” “sails beyond land” -- carry us even beyond the ostensible terrain of the book. We are ready to follow him far into unknown country, which will not be a matter of countable miles. And out of innumerable similes he could have used, he chooses one -- “the skyline like the low hull of a submarine”-- that again summons up views of distant water, of land turning into sea. Finally the horizontal horizons are rotated: they become vertical geographical strata, and geography becomes memory. The outer is the inner. A watercolor of forested ridges becomes an exploration of the watercolorist’s soul -- without any loss of tact.

THE PEREGRINE has been reissued this year by New York Review of Books Classics, a series I’m very fond of. The Introduction by Robert MacFarlane is worthy of its subject.

UPDATE ON PEREGRINE SPEED (also see Comments):
An emailer writes:

I recently had a second opportunity to watch a program about a
sky-diving falconer and his pet peregrine. At one point, when stooping,
the bird was officially clocked at 254 mph. Absolutely amazing.

Assuming the diver and falcon were in the air simultaneously, what amazes me
about this is that the terminal velocity for the human body is generally
held to be 120 mph if arms and legs are outstretched, and around 200 if
specially trained to dive low-drag. Much higher rates require diving from
extreme altitude. All in all, a little on the doubting side of suspended
judgment about this statement, but it does tend to corroborate what you