When I first read J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine and was captivated by the raptor-eyed vision of the natural world wrought by its astonishing prose, I was unaware of just how familiar to me was the landscape in which it takes place. We can deduce from the text that the county that Baker’s birds soared above and stooped upon was Essex: ‘There are four hundred miles of tidal coast, if all the creeks and islands are included; it is the longest and most irregular county coastline. It is the driest county, yet watery-edged, flaking down to marsh and salting and mud-flat.’ However, until I read Hetty Saunders’ magnificent new biography of Baker, My House of Sky: The Life of J.A. Baker, the Crowdfunder for which I was pleased to support, I did not know that Baker’s – and his peregrines’ – hunting ground was that part of Essex in which I myself fledged. Indeed, I now know that between 1979 (the year I was born) and 1984 (when my family moved away from Chelmsford) I lived but a mile from Baker. When we moved, three years before Baker’s death, it was only to Maldon, just 10 miles away and still centrally within the territory of the The Peregrine.
On first reading, though, because of the way that Baker anonymises the landscape, I did not know that ‘the estuary’ was the River Blackwater, down which I sailed many times with my wife’s family on their boat, to anchor off ‘the island’ – Osea Island – for barbecues on the foreshore; ‘the wood’ referred to the green slopes of Danbury, which we explored on family walks when I was a child; and ‘the brook’ was Sandon Brook, which I would cross early each morning for two summers as a teenager when I worked on Sandon Lodge Farm during the harvest.
As Saunders says, ‘[t]he part of Essex where Baker did most of his birding has some of the most evocative place names of anywhere in Britain. They record the rich history of the land….[M]any of these place names found their way into his diaries.’ It is from his diaries that Baker constructed The Peregrine. So why, when writing it, did he deliberately omit these evocative place names? If we are to take a comment Baker makes on the first page of The Peregrine at face value – ‘Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious. One part of England is superficially so much like another’ – then it would seem that his anonymisation of the Essex landscape was an expression of his failing to see anything distinctive about it (or any other English landscape).
But Baker clearly did love particular landscapes, and appreciated their differences. He tempers his point regarding the superficial similarities of landscapes immediately: ‘The differences are subtle, coloured by love.’ Later in The Peregrine he falls into an uncharacteristic reverie, and reveals his love of a particular – and named – landscape. Sitting on a hillside until ‘long after sunset, thinking of peregrines’ he runs through the places that peregrines have, before they started succumbing to ‘the insidious pollen of farm chemicals’, traditionally wintered; the North Kent Marshes, the ‘sterile plain’ of Middlesex, along the Thames from London to Oxford ‘and beyond’, around the shores of the Wash, and so on. But then he returns to dwell on that place ‘beyond’ Oxford.
‘Due west, eighty miles from here, the land rises to the north of Oxford, and goes on rising. Slowly the hills unwind their long horizons and the land surfs up into limestone and hangs like a frozen wave of green above the Severn plain. The uniqueness of Cotswold is in air and stone; it is something very cold and pure. I remember the peregrines of those winter hills. They perched on undulating limestone walls that glimmered in the deepening dusk and shone long after all the fields were dark, as though deep within their honey-coloured stone a candled twilight slowly died. High and heraldic, peregrines watched from the beech-crests and saw beech-burnt horizons ringing the winter sky, that immense Cotswold sky, drifted with vast flocks of plover like debris from the flying curve of earth. Cotswold is its own place, withdrawn, remote. It has its own light, and cold, and sky, and monarchy of cloud. It will not be meshed in words.’
Here Baker is doing for the Cotswolds precisely what he does throughout the rest of The Peregrine for Essex: ‘colouring with love’ so as to capture the subtle distinctiveness of an individual landscape. After all, his express aim is to not only ‘recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird’ but also to ‘convey the wonder of the land he lived in.’ So if it can be discounted that Baker anonymised the Essex countryside because he saw nothing distinctive about it, can it instead be because he thought it futile to try and ‘mesh in words’ the subtle character of a landscape? This too seems unlikely; he may well doubt his ability to convey the singular character of particular places, but using their names – rooted in their peculiar history and culture – would surely have aided, not hindered, this undertaking.
The Peregrine, in anonymising its landscape, stands in contrast to much recent writing on place and nature, in which place naming is a prominent feature. This is not to everyone’s taste; Richard Smyth in his TLS article ‘Plashy Fens’, complains of the ‘clatter of namedropping’ in recent nature writing, ‘not of VIPs but of plant names and place names – Cloonkill, Sliebh Mis, Dal’Arie; cranesbill, stitchwort, selfheal, heath bedstraw. They have an evocative sound, but they are also, looked at squarely, jargon. Perhaps as well as seasoning the text they serve the purpose of all jargon: to gate-keep, and protect privilege.’ Could this have been what Baker was doing: democratising ornithology, signalling that these were not his birds in his territory, but everyone’s? Certainly there were some naturalists who were unimpressed with Baker’s ‘unscientific’ – and, perhaps not unrelatedly, very popular – work, but this does not strike me as the likely explanation. In any case, it is not clear to me that ‘namedropping’ is always best understood as an act of gate-keeping; if writers were so concerned to protect their privilege of knowing particular places – of keeping the gate closed and having their favourite retreats to themselves – then they would do well to mask the identities of the places they love, not reveal them by naming them. This suggests another possible reason for Baker to hide the identity of The Peregrine’s landscape; to avoid the possibility that any success it might enjoy provoke an influx of bird watchers and other tourists, who might further disturb the birds his book was written to defend. But this, too, seems implausible; Baker is eulogising not just the disappearing peregrines – ‘The long pursuit is over. Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive’ – but also the landscape that was their home; ‘It is a dying world, like Mars’. He hardly presents the Essex woods and saltmarshes as an enticing destination.
The most likely explanation, it seems to me, for Baker’s anonymisation of the Essex landscape was to keep the focus of the text exclusively on the peregrines, and to ensure that the plight they were in was not taken to be local to one region of the country. Beyond this, along with the way in which the land in The Peregrine is, apart from an occasional distant glimpse of a farmer, deserted, the absence of place names further removes the human influence on the peregrines that Baker abhorred: ‘We are the killers, we stink of death. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.’ Perhaps Baker wanted to tear away some of that frost for the peregrines of his book, by omitting human-conferred names and instead labelling – albeit with human language – its simple natural features (wood, brook, island) only. This further serves as a device to present a perspective on the world that is, in a sense, closer to the peregrine’s. This is one of the book’s triumphs: to show the ‘peregrine’s view of the land…a pouring away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water’. The Peregrine’s landscape may be – without the aid of the recent research into Baker’s archive that resulted in Saunders’ biography – anonymous and unfamiliar to the human reader, but it is not place names by which a peregrine knows and navigates its territory, but ‘a succession of remembered symmetries’ and ‘patterns we do not know exist.’