by J.A. Baker
Harper & Row, 191 pp., $4.95
This is a provocative book. If you are a naturalist, after purchasing this book (not a novel) about a peregrine falcon, you will either be enthralled by the poetic prose of the author or be maddened by his style and shut the book with a bang, but whichever you do you will get something unusual for your money. The British edition has been available for some time, and The Peregrine has received extravagant praise there in some quarters, as a glance at the jacket will reveal.
On both sides of the Atlantic the peregrine falcon is seriously losing ground and if, as seems all too probable, nothing can be done about it, the peregrine will eventually disappear from the scene. For once this deplorable state of affairs cannot be placed at the door of the gamekeeper or pigeon-fancier, but fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the chemists who, in their zeal to manufacture a pesticide to kill all insect life and to find a method by which a grain crop could be increased by the use of fertilizers, completely overlooked—or ignored—the dangerous consequences to wild life, especially to the avifauna. This is a sad opening to a book about one of our noblest birds. “Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive.” Such is Mr. Baker’s opinion after ten years’ intensive study in Eastern England.
The book is divided into three parts: (1) The Beginnings; (2) Peregrines; (3) The Hunting Life. In Part One the author describes the surroundings of his home:
There are four hundred miles of tidal coast. It is the longest and most irregular county coastline…farms are well ordered, prosperous but a fragrance of neglect now lingers like a ghost of fallen grass….
For ten years I spent all my winters searching for that restless brilliance, for the sudden passion and violence that peregrines flush from the sky. For ten years I have been looking upward for that cloud-biting anchor shape, that crossbow flinging through the air….
In his introductory pages the author tells us that he has tried to preserve a unity in his book, binding together the bird, the watcher, and the place that holds them both. He describes everything that took place as he was watching, but does not believe that honest observation is enough: the emotions and behavior of the watcher must also be truthfully recorded. He tells us he has tried to capture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in. The result is the book—the work of a poet-naturalist—which lies before me for review.
Mr. Baker describes the field-craft which he employed to enable him to overcome a peregrine’s natural suspicions of a human being:
To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds it fears the unpredictable. Enter and leave …