Is The Peregrine by J. A. Baker really a classic nature book?

Posted November 21, 2017 by Denzil in Nature, Reviews / 6 Comments

The Peregrine by J A Baker
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The Peregrine by J. A. Baker
ISBN: 9781590171332
Published by New York Review of Books on June 15th 2004
Genres: Animals, Birds, Birdwatching Guides, Essays, Nature
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Despite this being hailed as one of the all-time great nature books, I have problems with The Peregrine by J. A. Baker. It describes the daily comings and goings of a pair of peregrine falcons across the flat fen lands of Essex, England. The author followed the birds obsessively, observing them in the air and on the ground, while they pursued their prey, made theirs kills and eat them. As he does so, he seems to begin to lose his humanness and take on some of the aspects of the birds he is following so obsessively.

Written in 1967, the book has won various prizes and has been feted for its brilliance. BBC Wildlife Magazine describes it as “one of the finest works on nature ever written.” Robert Macfarlane says it is “a masterpiece of twentieth-century non-fiction.” In the words of other reviewers, the book “transcends any nature writing of our time,”, and is “one of the most beautifully written, carefully observed and evocative wildlife accounts I have ever read.”

So what’s my problem?

I read it first in 1974, and then again more recently. While Baker’s observational skills are second to none, and his descriptions at times are breathtaking, a thought kept appearing in my mind with worrying frequency: “Do I believe all this?”

If everything he describes is true, then Baker is indeed a naturalist among naturalists, and I am in awe of him. Personally though, I find myself doubting the veracity of his records. Some of his experiences just sound so out of the world, as if (I whisper it in case I am upsetting naturalists worldwide) he’d found and eaten a few too many magic mushrooms in the fields where he was walking.

One example of a magical day

January 27. He sees a great snipe (so it’s already a red-letter day considering the rarity of this bird). Then he finds two dead herons. He spots some otter tracks. He watches as a moorhen gets pulled underwater by a pike. He enters a shed and pulls the body of a frozen, dead barn owl off the rafters. While examining it something hits the shed roof, slithers down the roof and falls at the author’s feet. It’s a wounded wood pigeon that has just been hit by a hunting peregrine. Baker kills it, tosses it into the field, and watches as the peregrine returns to its prey. Finally, having seen enough for the day, he goes home. Oh, on his way home he disturbs a fox eating a pheasant.

Now, any single one of those experiences is remarkable. Put two of them together and you have a very special day. Three and it’s an absolutely unique day. But ALL of them, one after another? Time and time again Baker seems to be exactly in the right spot, at the right time, for a series of incredible close-to-nature experiences.

Presumably The Peregrine has been studied and analyzed by naturalists much wiser than I am who have verified his sightings, but personally, I have problems believing everything I read in this book. I tried to put my doubts to one side and focus on the writing, but consistently failed.

Maybe you will have greater success.

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6 responses to “Is The Peregrine by J. A. Baker really a classic nature book?

  1. I have not yet read the book and I do agree with you on the improbability of that many special circumstances happening in one outing. I have read some nonfiction writers who seem ok to ‘create’ coincidences if the actual experiences have happened to them– they might not have all happened on the same day in question, but they did happen. Since this author is covering an entire season, it seems like too many coincidence over too long a period.

    • Denzil

      I can only assume that a number of observations over a certain period were condensed into the writing as happening in a much shorter timeframe. But this, as you say, creates a blend between non-fiction and fiction: where does the line lie?

    • Denzil

      Thanks for your comment Glen. I think I struggle because I have a scientific background and believe that an observation needs to be accurate and verified. I obviously have not gained my poetic license.

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