Should you wish to identify a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) you would most certainly consult a field guide. Should you wish to know a bit more about what ornithologists have discovered concerning this species, a life history or ornithological monograph about them would be your best bet. However if you wish to discover what makes these splendid birds the masters of their world that they are, what makes them tick, indeed, what their very zeitgeist is, then you will need seek out and read a copy of J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine.
J. A. (John Alec) Baker wrote The Peregrine in 1966. It was, and still remains, a unique work in entire category of twentieth century writing. Although awarded the Duff Cooper Prize in 1967 for being the best work published in English or French in the categories of “history, biography, or political science,” merely classifying The Peregrine at all has been something of a challenge to librarians, booksellers, and critics alike. While most commonly considered to be a work of natural history, it is often understood as a memoir or even occasionally a work of fiction.
Much of this has to do with Mr. Baker’s curious but highly successful technique of condensing ten years of field observations recorded from 1955 through 1965 in his native Essex, England into a narrative that itself spans only half a single “synthetic” year. But make no mistake; this is not a work of fiction. Baker was adamant that everything he included in The Peregrine had been observed in the field – just not exactly during the same calendar year.
Lyrical but not overly flowery, informative without being pedantic, The Peregrine is a book in which it is very easy to become enthralled. Baker’s clean, natural style perfectly suits his subject, capturing the grace and beauty, and well mirroring their perfectly evolved ecological position as masters of the sky; just as in a wild peregrine’s very physical structure itself, everything necessary is present and nothing superfluous is allowed to remain.
Included in this new Collins edition of The Peregrine are also two additional and far less well known works by Mr. Baker; the somewhat enigmatic, first person present, impressionistic portraits of diverse English habitats published collectively as The Hill of Summer in 1969, and selections from his diaries for the years between 1953 and 1961. The inclusion of these works, as well as the well-written and enlightening introduction by the renowned natural history author Mark Cocker, author of Birders: Tales of a Tribe, Crow Country and other works of particular merit, make this new edition of The Peregrine not only the essential volume for all admirers of the work of J A. Baker but also a must-read for all those who appreciate great natural history writing.
Author: J. A. Baker (introduction by Mark Cocker)
Publisher: HarperCollins UK
Published: April 29, 2010
A paperback edition of this book (ISBN 978-0007395903) is also available.
This review originally appeared in the July / August 2011 edition of Bird Watcher’s Digest.
Disclosure: in accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was purchased by the reviewer.