Is The Peregrine one of the greatest books of the 20th century? Werner Herzog is coming to Stanford to say so.

By Cynthia Haven

J.A. Baker wrote The Peregrine at a precarious moment in environmental history: By the 1960s, the falcons had almost vanished entirely from the English countryside, thanks to aggressive use of pesticides. Baker’s response, an ecstatic panegyric to peregrines, stunned critics with its originality, power and beauty.

The young J.A. Baker (Photo courtesy Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex)

The little-known 1967 masterpiece will be the subject of an onstage conversation with legendary film director Werner Herzog, who has said that The Peregrine is one of his favorite books.

The Another Look book club event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2. The event is free, but registration is required and offered through the Another Look book club’s website; details on the event and the venue are included with registration. The Peregrine is available at Stanford Bookstore and at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Herzog’s interlocutor will be Robert Harrison, an acclaimed author and Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular radio talk showEntitled Opinions.

“One of the finest pieces of prose”

Herzog has made edgy films about grizzly bears, prehistoric cave drawings in southern France, Rajput festivals, and more – but he also prides himself on his role as an author and screenwriter. The Peregrine is required reading in Herzog’s Rogue Film School, and he has called it one of the greatest books of the 20th century, praising “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented, it is one of the finest pieces of prose you can ever see anywhere.”

The Peregrine, which received England’s prestigious Duff Cooper Prize, has no plot and no characters. Instead, Baker distills 10 years of observations into a single autumn-to-spring period, written as a diary. Baker’s passionate, unsparing descriptions of peregrine falcons in the fenlands of Essex convey the urgency of the historical moment:

“Before it is too late, I have tried to … convey the wonder of … a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa,” he wrote. By the spring of 1961, tens of thousands of birds were found littering the countryside, dead or dying in agony, along with other animals.

 Read the rest here.

A few words from Werner Herzog on The Peregrine

At the Venice Film Festival, 2009 (Photo: Nicolas Genin)

I’m Werner Herzog, I’m a filmmaker normally but I do read. The book I would really recommend is an obscure book published in 1967: “The Peregrine,” by J.A. Baker, who is somebody about whom we know nothing, literally nothing. He wrote in Great Britain when the last peregrines were dying out—now they have bounced back a little bit. He observes peregrines and it’s a most incredible book. It has prose of the caliber that we have not seen since Joseph Conrad. And an ecstasy—a delirious sort of love for what he observes.

The intensity and the ecstasy of observation is something that you have to have as a filmmaker or somebody who loves literature. Whoever really loves literature, whoever really loves movies, should read that book.

In a way, it’s almost like a transubstantiation, like in religion, where the observer becomes almost the object—in this case the falcon—he observes. He writes, for example, about the falcon soaring high up, and then higher and higher until the falcon is only a dot. Then he writes, “and then we swoop down,” as if he had become a falcon himself. And there’s a variety of moments where you can tell that he has completely entered into the existence of a falcon. And this is what I do when I make a film, I step outside of myself into an ekstasis in Greek, to step outside of your own body, a point outside. Baker steps into the fog and in an ecstasy of observing the world it is unprecedented.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful book and it’s on my mandatory reading list of my Rogue Film School. They have to read Roman antiquities, Virgil, Georgics, for example, and old Icelandic poetry, and among others the Warren Commission Report on Kennedy’s assasination, which is a wonderful piece of literature, wonderful crime story. And incredible in its conclusiveness.

What’s it like to have a peregrine for a friend? Ask falconer Hans Peeters.

Hans and friend

Hans and friend

Hans Peeters is the author of Mammals of California (2004), Raptors of California (2005), and Owls of California and the West (2007), as well as American Hawking (1970) and a number of scientific papers. He is a painter as well as an ornithologist, and has contributed illustrations for several well-known field guides to North American birds and Birds of South Asia, The Ripley Guide. His paintings have been exhibited in museums worldwide and have been used for postage stamps promoting conservation. 

At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 10 at CEMEX Auditorium, he is giving a (free) presentation on “Discovering Raptors.” Details and directions here.

We caught up with Hans to ask him a few questions about the raptor that so fascinated J.A. Baker – the peregrine.

Q. Tell me a little about your background with peregrines.

A.  I saw my first captive peregrine at the age of 12 at the house of a falconer in Germany. Since then, the peregrine has always been the pinnacle of falconry for me and is in fact the standard for falcons used in falconry. I flew peregrines almost continually from 1963 until 2003, although I trained other hawks and falcons as well, which of course offered comparisons. I have watched wild peregrines nearly around the world – in India, Africa, Australia, South America, and in the British Isles and Europe.

“Like a very demanding child.”

Q. What’s it like to have a peregrine for a friend?

A. Having a peregrine for a friend is rather like looking after a very demanding child.

Falcons need to be relaxed; otherwise, they damage their plumage, so valuable for flight. Peregrines, unlike other falcons, are by nature calm, but they do expect a decent daily meal. If raised properly, they sit about quietly all day, tethered to a perch, and begin to row their wings as flying time approaches, somewhat as a dog will bark at the door or bring you a leash. Once the hawking season is over – it lasts roughly from September to March, the falcon is usually turned loose in a mews, a special chamber, and allowed to put on some weight, which aids in the growth of new feathers.  Almost all falcons enjoy a bath now and then, and some indulge themselves daily.

Purely from the standpoint of friendship, a peregrine gives one pleasure besides making demands. They are personable enough where they usually recognize their owner and, in the air, will pick him out from among other people, waiting on above him while ignoring others. They also distinguish between the falconer’s dog and other dogs in the field.  As friends, they are reasonably faithful but can be led astray by the urge to migrate, the joys of soaring in warm weather and the hormones of love, as well as by fear of powerful predators – though in the end, they nearly always come back.

You do grow to love them when they perform as desired and when they show some affection towards you in terms of never using their powerful beaks and talons on you.

Q. What do you mean by “waiting on above him”?

A.  Simply put, it is circling overhead at a good “pitch,” or height, to stay in an advantageous position to catch something the falconer kicks up. The falconer waits until the falcon is in position.

Q.  What’s so special about falcons in general, and peregrines, in particular? How are peregrines different from other birds – eagles, for example?

A. Compared to other raptors, such as Red-tailed Hawks, Goshawks, Cooper’s Hawks, and Sharp-shinned Hawks, all of which are trained for falconry, falcons on the whole tend to be calmer and more easily managed – as is the Redtail, an exception among the hawks. All falcons excel at flight and are much more aerial than the other species.

The downside of such flying is that they are relatively short-legged and long-winged, which means in practice, they are less agile on the ground and in cover, where tight turns are important in capturing prey.

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J.A. Baker’s last book celebrates the song-lit English summer

A goldcrest in Lancashire (Photo: Francis C. Franklin)

J.A. Baker only wrote one other book after 1967′s The Peregrine. While his first, The Peregrine, charted the Essex landscape from fall to spring, his second, The Hill of Summer, runs from April to September, celebrating the verdant English summer.

Here is an excerpt from The Hill of Summer, published in 1969:

On the far side of the wood, a goldcrest sings among the larches, hidden in the high green light. He hops and flutters quickly along the branches, singing from bare dark twigs. It is a thin song, but vehement, emphatic, ending with a flourish. Occasionally his shrill call-note pierces down, a sound very close to silence. The large wood holds the wind gently persuasively, the high branches sifting it with a sound like the hiss of falling sand. The hot sun, and the big white clouds returning, are far beyond the tree-tops. The light under the trees is green and yellow, like the bending reflections of tree and sunlight in green water. Two swifts, the first of the year, hawk for insects in the upper sky. One rushes down at the other; then they sweep upward together in a rising arc, and fling themselves apart. Their distant screaming trails across the blue. A fox walks past, reddening the shadows. Then all is still; and there are only the nets of sunlight drifting over the dry bracken, and the green bracken growing, and the soft sifting, the endless sifting, of the wind in the feather large leaves.

A kestrel circles above the trees, gliding and fluttering. It soars higher, twining around the smooth column of the rising air. Above the dark crescents of the swifts it dwindles, feeding upon insects, swerving and half-hovering to catch them in its talons. Swallows rise to mob it; gently it rocks itself up beyond their reach. It floats up till the sky heals over it. It descends, and is visible for a moment, but it rises again to blue. Under and over the blue dust of the air it gleams and vanishes. Then suddenly it turns entirely into light, and is seen no more. I stay in the large wood, drowsy and at peace, while the quiet afternoon subsides into the song-lit April evening.

How much did Baker really see? The controversy that surrounds The Peregrine

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” J.A. Baker wrote in The Peregrine. The iambic heptameter thought forms a sort of credo for the elusive author. But the sentence may have a double meaning; it’s not clear today how much Baker really observed in his outings on Essex’s fenlands.

Questions about The Peregrine began to surface shortly after the book’s publication in 1967. No falcon expert had ever observed a peregrine eating worms, ever – yet Baker observes this happening often, in such passages as this one: “He rose up almost at once, with a thick red earthworm dangling from his toes. … he bent his head down to meet his uplifted foot and ate the worm in three gulping bites. … Three times, during the late afternoon, he planed down to the field to catch and eat a worm.”

There were other objections:

  • Peregrines don’t perch in bushes and swamps, as Baker claims.
  • His peregrines hunt in ways no one else has witnessed (they do not engage in play, for example).
  • His account of peregrine biology is mostly faulty (the peregrine’s eyes do not swivel, they do not weigh one anything near ounce each).
  • Peregrines do not fly with wings held in a dihedral.
  • They do not hover nearly as much as Baker claims to have seen them hover – on one page (166) the peregrines “hover” five times.
  • A peregrine’s prey does not behave in the suicidal ways that Baker describes.
  • The quantity of peregrine kills he claims to have discovered are highly exaggerated.

Mark Cocker (Alasdair Cross/Creative Commons)

The last question raised perhaps the greatest controversy. Baker claims to have found, over a ten year period, 619 carcasses of birds killed by wintering falcons. And how did he see falcons so regularly in Chelmer Valley, where few others had seen them?

The dispute continues today, and is likely to continue for some time to come. Baker died in 1987, many of his letters and much from his diaries has been destroyed. Yet Baker insisted to his death that he wrote what he had observed. He was convinced he was right.

We are left to make the best of it, and many have tried. Author and naturalist Mark Cocker, in his introduction to 2011 edition of The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer, and Diaries (Collins), took up the defense: “if you watch peregrines long enough they will do things that other people do not normally see, and even things that no one else has seen, such as eating worms. Recent research has just disclosed behaviour not widely recognised – namely that peregrines hunt and kill during the hours of darkness (Baker, incidentally, noted that the birds are active after sunset.)” We can’t call something untrue simply because it was without precedent, he insisted.  ”Peregrines, however well-studied, are birds of mystery still. That, surely, is the allure of all field study,” he wrote.

Cocker reminds us that Baker was distilling the observations of a decade, and possibly more. He had “compressed and manipulated the time frame,” wrote  Cocker. Elsewhere, “To read the book as a blow-by-blow series of genuine journal entries is to fail to appreciate the difference between the literal truth of a notebook and the literary truth as expressed by Baker.”

Author and conservationist Conor Mark Jameson came up with a startling insight of his own in Silent Spring Revisited: “Looking again closely at my copy of The Peregrine and these peculiar, detailed, loving descriptions of the bird, I had what felt like a moment of clarity, as a hypothesis dawned on me that just might clear up the confusion. There is a species that all of this fits, and could describe, and it’s neither Peregrine nor Kestrel. It’s Saker Falcon – Falco cherub. Or even, at a push, Lugger Falcon – Falco lugger. Or possibly a hybrid of either of these with Peregrine Falcon. They can be cross-bred in captivity…

“Baker’s decade straddles a period in which the owning of raptors had become what Gerald Summers called a ‘craze’.” They were problematic to train, easy to lose, and others flew off and were released.” In other words, Baker was viewing birds that may have been hybrids, and partly tamed.

Jameson defends Baker

As for the dead carcasses of birds, he had his own theory for that, too: “It’s well known that organo-chlorine pesticides persisted in the food chain in the post-war period, accumulating in the bodies of top-end predators like Peregrines, causing infertility and reproductive problems. What seems less remembered is that these chemicals were sometimes directly lethal, killing birds of all kinds in large numbers.”

Mulling over Baker’s book, he suggested, “Perhaps poisoning might even explain the unusual or lethargic behaviour of closely studied raptors of the time.”

Cocker said the questions are challenging and difficult, “These doubts cannot simply be dismissed as the kind of pettifogging scepticism that sometimes seems indivisible from the science and pastime of ornithology. There are serious issues that all informed readers of The Peregrine have to face.”


Treleaven’s correspondence with Baker: calculation, acceptance, and “marveling at nature.”

R.B. Treleaven (1920-2009) was called the doyen of British peregrine experts. He studied the behavior of the falcons for half a century, and is the author of The Private Life of the Peregrine Falcon and In Pursuit of the Peregrine. 

We only have one side of his correspondence with J.A. Baker, five letters now at the Albert Sloman Library of the University of Essex. Treleaven pounded out his correspondence on an old-fashioned manual typewriter. The letters are peppered with typos and corrections – an inevitable byproduct of the era. “I am afraid my typing gets worse and worse,” he lamented.

The friendship appears to have begun with a phone call from Baker on September 30, 1977. “Dick” Treleaven responded the next day: “I was both delighted and thrilled that you bothered to ring me last night. I had always wanted to contact you. When I first read your book I was puzzled by the fact that you had seemingly achieved the impossible. I knew that you were writing a book of intense feeling and was most anxious to ask you how much of it was poetic license. And now you have given me the answer. None.”

Then he described into his own observations – he had never seen a peregrine hunt a woodpigeons, though “semi-feral” pigeons “they hunt down with ruthless energy.” And, like Baker, he admitted that he, too, couldn’t drive – “my wife drops me off on the cliffs in the morning and picks me up in the evening.” (While odd in America, it was common for the English not to own a car or drive.) He ends with an invitation to visit his “favourite eyrie” in Cornwall.

We don’t know how Baker replied, but apparently the two swapped details on peregrine observations, for Treleaven replied, after some discussion of adult peregrines teaching their offspring how to hunt, “I believe like you the only answer to any of our problems is to spend a hell of a lot of time watching. I am a great believer in the 7 to 10 hour watch.”

Treleaven also described the kinds of efforts serious birdwatchers engage in: he “badly” needed information on the heights peregrines reach when hunting. So he made hardboard silhouettes and placed them on the hill. Then he viewed them in field glasses from various distances, which he measured. “I suspect that peregrines may well reach 5,000 feet when hunting. As soon as I have done my home work I will let you know my conclusions.”

Two redshanks on a pillar. (Photo: Boaworm/Creative Commons)

In the third letter on February 25, 1978, however, his attitude is a bit less scientific, and he confessed to anthropomorphism: “In nature one finds this strange kinship, as the call of a redshank sets an estuary on fire with a single call of alarm.” Too often, he writes, “MAN is the mean one.”

“A peregrine high in the sky – the first snow drop – cannot be represented on a graph or histogram but in the heart which needs no measurement.”

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“Man is killing the wilderness”: Baker’s final words on the Essex coast

Sunken gravel filled barges used as a breakwater on Denghie reserve. (Photo: Creative Commons)

The years did not lighten J.A. Baker’s pessimism about the future of the Essex countryside. His 1971 article, “On the Essex Coast,” for RSPB Birds Magazine, described his fears. They are the last words he published. 

One puzzle to today’s reader is that he writes that “the largest airport in the world” was scheduled to be built nearby – but Essex has only two airports today, neither of them a great international airport, and both were in operation by the time this article was written. Nevertheless, there is no doubt the erosion of the countryside continued, as it has everywhere else. He would be happy to know, however, that Denghie is now has nature preserve: 

"A messenger from the wilderness"

“A messenger from the wilderness” (Photo: Ómar Runólfsson)

This is the Dengie coast, seven miles of sea-wall north to south, a great arc of saltings outside it, half a mile of mudflats beyond. An austere place perhaps, withdrawn, some might say desolate. But the silence compels. It is a very old silence. It seems to have been sinking slowly down through the sky for numberless centuries, like the slow fall of the chalk through the clear Cretaceous sea. It has settled deep. We are under it now, we are possessed by it. When strangers come here, many will say, “It’s flat. There is nothing here.” And they will go away again. But there is something here, something more than the thousands of birds and insects, than the millions of marine creatures. The wilderness is here. … Man is killing the wilderness, hunting it down.  …

I stumble over a dead mummified object. It is a red-throated diver so matted and bound with oil as to be almost unrecognizable, the mere torso of a bird. It stinks of oil. It is an atrocity, a stumpy victim of our modern barbarity. Born, perhaps, upon some island in a Scottish loch, cherished by local birdlovers, watched to maturity, then seen to depart in the full power and splendour of its beauty, a messenger from the wilderness: now here it has been returned like a crushed and mutilated fugitive thrust back across a frontier. We must not let its death be soothed away by the lullaby language of indifferent politicians. This bird died slowly and horribly in a Belsen of floating oil, as thousands of others have done, as millions more may do in the vile years to come. Involuntarily my gaze turns towards Foulness, toward the future.

“A brilliant torch…” (Photo: Frebeck)

I blunder on across the saltings, in too great a rage to see or hear anything clearly. After a day of peace, I have seen the ineffaceable imprint of many again, have smelt again the insufferable stench of money. A yellow wagtail flits ahead of me, a brilliant torch flaming up into the sun. That at least seems to be still clean, still untainted. Yet who can know what insidious chemical horror may be operating beneath those brilliant feathers. …

In ten years’ time the largest airport in the world will have been built a few miles from here. Then, night and day, the endless barrage of roaring sound will tear away this silence forever and this last home of the wilderness will be imprisoned in a cage of insensate noise. Cordoned by motorways, overshadowed by the huge airport city, the uniqueness of this place will be destroyed as completely as though it had been blown to pieces by bombs. It is not merely that this incredible barbarism will be inflicted upon us. One grieves that such a wonderful opportunity has been cast away, a chance to preserve the coastline of Essex, from Shoeburyness to Harwich, to protect it from further urban encroachment to keep it unchanged as a national nature reserve. Essex has suffered so much: the new towns, the vast growth and overspill of London, the lancing through of motorways. We could at least have been allowed to keep the best of our county, the peace of its ancient bird-haunted coast that is the only peace that is left. All we can do now is to try to preserve whatever may remain, so that some of the wild life will survive. Then the birds will still call as they have done today, though the sound will never reach us. But they were here before the coming of man, they will endure the shadow of our tyranny, they will fly out into the sun again when we have gone.

Perhaps the most isolated part of Essex. (Photo J. Smith/Creative Commons)


Stanford’s Another Look book club reborn with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country

Another Look book club takes on J.L. Carr’s 1980 masterpiece, ‘A Month in the Country,’ under the new leadership of author Robert Pogue Harrison.


Carr by a quince tree. (Photo courtesy Bob Carr)

The British novelist J.L. Carr had an implacable side. “Once he started something, he never let it drop,” his son recalled.

One example: Carr, a primary school headmaster, was wandering through a Northamptonshire village in 1964 when he ran across a dilapidated 14th-century church. Spending more than a decade in a tireless letter-writing campaign to restore the building, Carr battled bureaucrats, vandals and a pilfering vicar. Eventually, the matter landed in the lap of the Queen of England.

From that infuriating experience was born a tender masterpiece: A Month in the Country, a late-life novel published in 1980, when Carr was well into his 60s. In the short book, two shell-shocked veterans of World War I look for healing and happiness in a Yorkshire village. One is restoring a medieval painting on the wall of the old church; the other is looking for a long-lost grave.

The Another Look book club will discuss the short novel at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center in Stanford’s Encina Hall. Another Look events, which focus on off-the-beaten-track novels, are free and open to the public. (Stanford Bookstore and Kepler’s in Menlo Park are stocking Carr’s book.)

Another Look was founded by the distinguished author Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English. With his retirement this year, the book club was itself slated for demolition. The popular program has now been revived for its fourth season under the aegis of Stanford Continuing Studies, with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature and an acclaimed author in his own right, as the new director. Harrison is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the radio talk show Entitled Opinions.

For the Oct. 19 discussion, Harrison will be joined by Wolff, who received the National Medal of Arts this month, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s new dean for religious life at Stanford and author of several books.

Read the whole article here.