Book Review: J. A. Baker's The Peregrine / by Neal Auch

The Peregine, by J. A. Baker

The Peregine, by J. A. Baker

I came across J. A. Baker's bird hunting diary, The Peregrine, because Werner Herzog recommends this book for anybody aspiring to be a filmmaker.  I don't really aspire to be a filmmaker (at least not in the immediate future) but I was curious what lessons Herzog has in mind when he suggests that film students should invest their time pouring over the bird hunting diary of a dead Englishman.

It's difficult to convey the experience of reading this book simply by describing the contents.  This is, quite simply, the diary of a man who tracks the hunting behaviour of two pairs of peregines from October to April.  In daily entries Baker records his experience of watching the birds kill, bathe, fly, roost, sleep, etc.  Some days the peregines are absent entirely; on these days Baker describes the weather or other birds he has seen.    This is a book in which almost nothing happens, and what little does happen tends to happen over and over and over again.  This probably sounds boring and, indeed, the book is not for everybody, but there's a beauty and poetry to Baker's prose that elevates this book from something quite mundane into a piece of art.  I'm tempted to compare The Peregrine to Truman Capote's nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, since both books take something that might have been just a few simple statements of fact and elevate this into high art.  (This comparison is arguably a bit of a stretch, since the two books share no connection thematically, but I don't think it's entirely unwarranted.)

To give a sense of how Baker approaches his birding diary, here's a pretty typical paragraph drawn more-or-less at random from the text, describing a peregine descending on his prey:

He fell so fast, he fired so furiously from the sky to the dark wood below, that his black shape dimmed to grey air, hidden in a shining cloud of speed.  He drew the sky about him as he fell.  It was final.  It was death.  There was nothing more.  There could be nothing more.  Dusk came early.  Through the almost dark, the fearful pigeons flew quietly down to roost above the feathered bloodstain in the woodland ride.

The beauty of Baker's work comes from the repetition, the incredible attention to detail, the insight Baker has into the mind of the pregrine.  The "story" emerges slowly and in small key moments, such as a passage where Baker stands over a fresh kill, mimics the postures of the peregine, and even tastes the kill that the bird has left behind.  These moments tell the story of a man who is gradually becoming one with the beast that he observes.  This is a story of pure empathy, of placing oneself wholly in the skin of another living thing.

This idea of Baker becoming the peregrine (metaphorically, of course) over the course of the narrative is presumably the reason Werner Herzog recommends this novel to aspiring filmmakers.  Herzog is probably best known as a documentarian, it's easy to see how Baker's meticulous process of getting inside the mind of his subject would carry over to that line of work.  There's a lesson here also for portrait photographers, I should think.  Beautiful stuff.