For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Friday, 25 January 2008

Peregrine

Seeing Loren Webster's photo of a peregrine falcon yesterday reminded me of a book I bought the year before last by J. A. Baker called simply The Peregrine. It was originally published in 1967, but a new edition came out in 2005 with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane, one of my favourite writers on wilderness. Very little is known about John Alec Baker, the author, except that he lived in Essex. Even the date of his death seems to be a mystery. Perhaps he is still alive?

The Latin name for the peregrine falcon is falco peregrinus. Falco means hook or sickle-shaped - a reference to its curved beak and claws. Peregrinus means foreigner, traveller, wanderer, pilgrim - undoubtedly an acknowledgement of its long migratory flights in spring and autumn, and also its lonely sky-gliding journeys in search of food. Peregrines are one of the fastest birds on earth, sometimes diving or 'stooping' at 100 miles per hour to kill their prey.

In Baker's book, a classic of natural history writing, nothing happens very much. But we become utterly absorbed in the peregrine's world. Baker is obsessed with the bird. He eats, sleeps and drinks nothing else. We, too, share almost as intensely in the bird's life as readers. The book's written in a style which is a mix of close observation and poetic imagination. From any page I could choose a quotation showing Baker's fine writing and demonstrating his close identification with the falcon. Just at random how about this:

Beyond the line of poplars, he circled and began to soar again. This time he pulled across the wind, rising swiftly to the north-west, moving far out and very high above the river valley. Gliding, spiralling, hovering, sculling, he seemed to be freed at last from his orchard obsession. Free! You cannot know what freedom means till you have seen a peregrine loosed into the warm spring sky to roam at will through all the far provinces of light. Along the escarpments of the river air he rose with martial motion. Like a dolphin in green seas, like an otter in the startled water, he poured through deep lagoons of sky up to the high white reefs of cirrus. When my arms were aching, and I could watch him no longer, he blurred into a tiny speck and vanished from the bright circle of my vision. Soon I found him again, and saw him grow larger. Gradually, steadily, he grew larger. From thousands of feet above the valley he was diving back to the orchard, which he was not yet ready to leave completely. He grew from a speck to a blur, to a bird, to a hawk, to a peregrine; a winged head shouldering down through the wind. With a rush, with a flash, with a whirr of wings, he came down to the hedge ten yards away from me. He perched, he preened, he looked around; not tired, not tested even, by his half-hour of festive flight. With the whole valley to choose from, he had chosen to came back to the orchard where I was standing. There is a bond: impalpable, indefinable, but it exists.

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