19 May 2020

Lockdown Library #4


by Rick T.

19 May 2020

Today's Lockdown Library segment comes from actor David Oakes who recommends J.A.Baker's 'The Peregrine'.

“I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision. They know suffering and joy in the simple states not possible for us. Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach. They race to oblivion. They are old before we have finished growing.” “The Peregrine” by J.A.Baker

I came late to the love of reading nature writing.
To me, nature was purely to be experienced. You walked through it, climbed it, rode across it or swan down it. It was to be inhaled deep or scanned through binoculars. I saw little purpose to reading “nature”. If landscape or critter were transmogrified into literature, it had to be spiced up by those demons, “narrative” and “anthropomorphism". Williamson may have expertly woven an honest geography of Taw and Torridge, and Adams may have researched his bunnies via Ronald Lockley, but I was to read for the tooth and nail heroism of Tarka, or the courage and tragedy of Bigwig.
But, whilst at university, I was to buy a book that would change all that. Found in a secondhand bookshop in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, a hard-bound copy of Baker’s “The Peregrine” seemed exactly the right kind of book to adorn the bookshelf of a nature-loving English Literature student.

Baker spent a decade following peregrines across his home turf in Essex - over an area only (approximately) 550km squared. He then spent a further three years distilling his hundreds of field journals into fewer than 200 pages. Robert Macfarlane describes the book as being a diamond compressed from crushed coals.

The book takes the form of diary entries, plotting a course from October to April and I would, and indeed still do, dip into this journal as I would a collection of short stories. I grin as Baker feeds acorns to field-mice, and as he stops his hawk hunt to be serenaded by a corn-bunting. I often carry a copy with me, to dip into, to root me to the British countryside when away from home or when swamped by metropolis. It is crammed with plover and dunlin, reed-bed and sand-break, great oak and, now unfortunately rare, slender elm. It makes you high. And its core is the Peregrine and the electricity of the hunt.

I don’t recall the first time I saw a Peregrine - Baker too barely recalls his first fleeting encounter - but I can remember the first time I looked into a Peregrine’s eyes, and I remember the book being close at hand when I did.

Perhaps the greatest perk of being an actor (at least as far as I am concerned) is that many of my acting roles have been accompanied by animal co-stars (and I’m not referring to Ian McShane). When I interviewed Cat Barlow for my podcast, “Trees A Crowd” back in January, I spoke of the wonder of flying a golden eagle for the BBC’s “The White Queen”; I worked with a bear on “The Pillars of the Earth”, llamas on “The Living and the Dead” and even a jaguar during “The Borgias” - both when it was a kitten and a year later when it had fully grown. It was on “The Borgias” that I came face to face with the peregrine. We had two peregrines on set with us that day. They were to be flown for a hunting scene. EVERY period drama has a falconry scene it seems. They provide instant temporal transportation without the requirement of extra costuming - “For that oldieworldie feel; just add falcon!”

On a side note, falconry is not solely a leisure activity of the past. Natural England continues to allow Peregrine eggs to be taken, under license, for the use of being reared for falconry. UNESCO see the pastime as an ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’. Unsurprisingly this is seen as contentious by many, but I’ll leave you to make up your own mind on that - more on this here:

I remember spending the day entranced by these birds; even finding time to make a couple of sketches. I kept losing myself in the falcon’s gaze whilst trying to capture their stare on paper. It seems obvious and perverse to say, but their eyes are not of our human world. I had taken my copy of Baker’s book with me to Hungary, where we filmed this show, and that evening I hoped Baker’s encounters could help me get a grasp on mine. He describes the eyes of a tiercel (a male peregrine) thus:

“His big, brown, spaniel eyes shine wet in the sunlight, like circles of raw liver, embedded in the darker matt brown of the moustachial mask.”

Their eyes are perfect. Larger than a human’s. If our eyes where to match the peregrine’s proportions, as Baker says, “a twelve-stone man would have eyes three inches across, weighing four pounds.” They are terrifying and beautiful. Nature at its purest ferocity and function.

“Everything he is has been evolved to link the targeting eye to the striking talon.”

But the peregrine’s hunt is not a clumsy one. So sharp and precise is its thermal rise and so swift the eventual speed-defining stoop, that it could be seen in terms of poesy to the observer, and in terms of mercy to the prey.

The same can be said of Baker’s writing. His words are talons. We his widgeon. It’s crisp; seemingly refined over an evolutionary timescale. I believe the decade long journey that Baker spent watching these angels in flight, blessed him with a heavenly means of expression - or perhaps, rather, entrenched in the grasslands, Herne the Hunter helped guide Baker’s pen:

“Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.”

But, it is not a book about a bird. Neither is it about a place, or a time, or a man. Through observing a great bird through a great many lenses, Baker presents you with time slowed and with space comprehendible, both ceaselessly abundant with wildlife. Baker transformed how I view the natural world.

A Huge Thank You to David Oakes for this fantastic blog!!

Photos: Top: David Oakes. Middle: Peregrine Sketch by David Oakes. Bottom: The Peregrine by J.A.Baker