Extreme styles of hunting

Robert Macfarlane sees Essex through the hawk-eyes of JA Baker

Any writer who takes the English landscape as his subject faces the problem of precedent. Each acre has been written about before. There is, it can seem, nothing original, nothing primary, to find again. An aspic layer of cliche clings and trembles over the terrain.

Very occasionally, though, an author will devise a style so fierce and uncanny that it lifts even this most heavily historied and chronically farmed of countrysides into strangeness again. JA Baker's The Peregrine, first published in 1967, is such a book: a reminder of the wildness with which England still brims.

The Peregrine's plot - if a book so unconventional can be said to possess a plot - runs as follows. One autumn, two pairs of peregrines come to hunt over an area of coastal Essex: a mixed landscape of marshland, wood, field, estuary and sea. For a reason which is never fully explained, Baker becomes obsessed with the birds. From October to April, he tracks them daily, and watches as they wash, fly, kill, eat and roost. "Autumn", as Baker puts it, "begins my season of hawk-hunting, spring ends it, and winter glitters between like the arch of Orion." The book records these months of chase in all their agitated repetitiveness. It describes them in language so intense and incantatory, and yet also so amok with beauty, that the act of bird-watching becomes akin to a shamanic ritual.

As the seasons proceed, Baker's relationship with the birds deepens. He starts by learning to track them. Peregrines can often fly so fast, and at such an altitude, that to the human eye they are invisible from the ground. But Baker discovers that the hawks can be located by the disturbance they create among other birds, in the same way that the position of an invisible plane can be told from its contrail. "Evanescent as flame," he writes on October 7, "peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above. But in the lower air a wake of birds trails back, and rises upward through the white helix of the gulls."

As he refines his tracking skills, so Baker draws closer to the hawks. One November day, he rests his hand on the grass where a peregrine has recently stood, and experiences "a strong feeling of proximity, identification". By December, he has turned fully feral. "The hunter", he writes, has become "the thing he hunts" - human has turned into hawk.

Baker's extraordinary book is an elegy in part for the peregrines, and in part for the landscape through which he and they both moved. By the mid-1960s, the atrocious impact of pesticides upon raptor populations in Britain was becoming apparent. In 1939 there had been 700 peregrine pairs; a 1962 survey showed a decline to half this number, with only 68 pairs appearing to have reared chicks successfully. The Essex countryside was also menaced, as it underwent reckless reshaping for the purposes of agribusiness. Hedges were grubbed up, spinneys and copses bulldozed, old lanes earthed over.

It must have seemed plausible to Baker that the peregrines and the landscape would become extinct. "I remember those winter days", he mourns, "those frozen fields ablaze with warring hawks ... It is sad that it should be so no longer. The ancient eyries are dying". The book stands as requiem for both bird and place - or a sacred charm which might save them both.

One has no choice but to keep reading The Peregrine, even though it is a book in which very little happens, over and over again. Dawn. The man watches, the bird hunts, the bird kills, the bird feeds. Dusk. And so on, through seven months. What Baker understood was that in order to keep the reader reading through the same cycle of events, he had to forge a new language of description. The language which he created was as instinctive, sudden and aerial as the bird to which it was devoted, and one which, like the bird, could startle even as it repeated itself.

Like all extreme stylists, Baker was a metalworker, heating the language until it became pliable, then bending and torquing it into new shapes. Again and again, he surprises us at the level of the sentence, as nouns become verbs and verbs become adjectives: "Five thousand dunlin rained away inland, like a horde of beetles gleamed with golden chitin"; "The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedges"; "Four short-eared owls soothed out of the gorse."

Baker's style is at its most heightened in the set-piece descriptions - each as formal and dynamic as any Imagist poem - of the peregrine's chase and its "stoop"; that "sabring fall from the sky", when the hawk drops into its prey from a height of up to 3,000 ft, killing with the shock of impact as much as with the slash of talons:

"A falcon peregrine, sable on a white shield of sky, circled over from the sea. She slowed, and drifted aimlessly, as though the air above the land was thick and heavy. She dropped. The beaches flared and roared with salvoes of white wings. The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds. The falcon rose and fell, like a black billhook in splinters of white wood."

Throughout The Peregrine, there is an astonishing tensedness to the prose. This is not a faked, effortful tensedness - the prose equivalent of a fat man sucking in his belly for a photograph - but something pure, precise, elemental. When, describing a Cotswold winter, Baker notes that "the air smelt of iron, hard and implacable", we know that he has chosen that verb "smelt" for the way it rings, metallically, off "iron". When he writes that "Morning was hooded and seeled with deep grey cloud and mist", we know that "seeled" is not a misprint for sealed, but a falconer's term, meaning "to stitch up the eyelids of a hawk".

Baker's most remarkable achievement in The Peregrine, to my mind, is the quality of deep strangeness with which he invests the East Anglian landscape. His Essex - 50 miles from London, aggressively farmed, densely peopled - is somehow made as mysterious, elemental, wild and remote as anywhere in the world. Like Ted Hughes, Baker is able to evoke a deep Englishness: to make a long-inhabited landscape seem timeless and mythic. And like TH White and John Masefield, he knows the magical properties of the English winter wood: trees "black and hard", "the bone-white coral of frosted hedges".

One way Baker makes his Essex so alien is by avoiding official place-names. As Rilke says all poets must do, he names his own realm into being. He speaks only of "the South", "the North", "the East" and "the West". He inhabits a cardinal landscape. When he is travelling, he steers himself by landform and feature, instead of proper nouns. He walks "inland", "up the slope of the hill", "along the line of the woods". He also depopulates his countryside. The odd walker is seen, ships move out at sea, a red tractor combs a field. Otherwise, an eerie emptiness prevails. This is of course because he has gone wild, and keeps to the hedges, the trees and the shadows.

Everything contained within The Peregrine - the landscape, the narrator, the birds, the language - behaves in unpredictable ways. Everything is surprised into unforeseen and beautiful expression by the passage of the hawk and the sweep of Baker's hawk-like gaze. It is, unmistakably, a masterpiece of the literature of place: a book which sets the imagination aloft, and keeps it there for months and years afterwards. A new edition of The Peregrine with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane is published by New York Review Books on July 7.

• The final essay in Robert Macfarlane's Common Ground series will appear in a fortnight

Robert Macfarlane

The GuardianTramp

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