“There is no mysterious essence we can call a ‘place’. Place is change. It is motion killed by the mind, and preserved in the amber of memory.” JA Baker
“There is an animal mystery in the light that sets upon the fields like a frozen muscle that will flex and wake at sunrise.” JA Baker
Some writing transcends text. Connecting deeply to nature, these writers make the ordinary extraordinary and one wants to return to that place, that book, that state of being over and over again. There is a deeper magic and a secular mysticism evoked by language that creates a stable realm transcending, what for most writers, would be merely recording a momentary, fleeting experience or flash of insight. This tradition shares something very precious with each new generation of reader by (re)mapping, (re)creating and (re)making rarely discernible, usually impenetrable states of awareness accessible in the amber of the written word.
My very youngest self first felt this mysterious feeling while watching Tales of the Riverbank on TV. On Sunday mornings it evoked a weird kind of reverie, so very different from the American cartoons on the other channel. An even younger self had these mysterious feelings on the freshly-cut lawn after being held-up high by a relative to feed a carrot to an impossibly huge horse with teeth that seemed larger than its head. Spread-eagled, looking at clouds while floating in saltwater, imaginatively freed of the restraints of gravity are strong memories, preserved in my own amber. The first time I remember connecting to the mysterious while reading was during “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in The Wind in the Willows. I long-grappled with that early morning scene on the riverbank, reading and re-reading in an attempt to work out what was happening, mostly because of the way it made me feel – like I did when alone fishing or walking in the bush near my house. At that young age, I had no access to the literary tradition that could further explore these mystical, mysterious moments.
John Keats, William Wordsworth, JRR Tolkien, Ted Hughes and a library of other writers, with their literary talons and word-hoards, transport us to deeply mysterious places and states long to be inhabited by readers, across generations. In more recent years it has been those writing directly about nature that most evoke this reverie with their own contemplations of ‘place’. There has been a resurgence in both new British nature writing and in re-discovering the venerable history of the genre. Contemporary writers, like Robert MacFarlane, the late Roger Deakin and Helen Macdonald, have helped to chart our own place in sky, water and literary landscapes.
This brings me to JA Baker (1926-1986).
My House of Sky: A Life of J.A. Baker (2017) by Hetty Saunders is an excellent biography of the author of The Peregrine (1967) and The Hill of Summer (1969). When first reading Baker’s extraordinary prose scant biographical information was available. Readers knew little more than he was a myopic birdwatcher with a pushbike and a flair for descriptive writing who was often in poor health and had never travelled far from his home. The newly instituted JA Baker Archive at the University of Essex has enabled scholars to discover more about the his life and work.
John Alec Baker was by most measures a very ordinary, solitary man. An only child, he was born in Essex and educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, where he lived for almost all his life. What makes him extraordinary is his prose. His powerfully raw, lyrical attempt to enter the mind of a falcon has been described by many writers and readers since publication in 1967. Most emphasise his evocative descriptive writing and poet’s talent for crafting accurate similes and metaphors but there is something else about the writing that obsesses many. Baker’s book, as Saunders points out, has influenced more contemporary chroniclers of nature in film, literature and natural history than one can sensibly list. She suggests that the obsessiveness with which Baker hunted down his falcons has been passed onto his readers. Werner Herzog, the German film director, admires Baker’s work so much that he encourages his students to learn it, learn the whole book by heart. He believes it is akin to reading about a religious experience: a religion of an ancient stripe, full of incantation, blood and bone – the kind that you find in the writing of late medieval mystics. This mysterious power is what attracts this reader to Baker’s work too.
The day hardened in the easterly gale, like a flawless crystal. Columns of sunlight floated on the land. The unrelenting clarity of the air was solid, resonant, cold and pure and remote as the face of the dead. JA Baker
Saunders has produced an intelligent, sensitive and perceptive account of Baker’s life, writing and contemporary significance. Anyone interested in literature, even if they are not enthralled by nature, will find it a fine exploration of time, place and the making of an author too. Like all good writers Baker is a reader. It fascinated to see his literary influences and what was on his bookshelf. One would assume plenty of poetry and quality literature but Baker was also an avid reader of sci-fi. He obsessively drafted and re-drafted his writing and even after publication of this work, the pencil was re-employed to make more changes and notes. He was highly self-critical and deeply intellectually connected to literary culture.
Saunders’ own turn of phrase is notable. For example, it is hard to read any account of birds of prey from recent years that doesn’t hold within it glimmers of Baker’s own adamantine style, so recognisable, breaking now and then through the prose like flints in a ploughed field. Indeed, it would be improper for any biographer of Baker to be anything less than a skilful writer with deep, insightful understanding of the evocative power of his prose. Not all biographers could cast such a memorable line in response to a fan letter found in the archive describing how, when walking in Baker country figured, maybe your peregrine might appear…as if Baker could draw one down from the sky, like a shaman’s familiar.
His eyes were fixed on my face, and his head turned as he went past, so that he could keep me in view. He was not afraid, nor was he disturbed when I lowered and raised my binoculars or shifted my position. He was either indifferent or mildly curious. I think he regards me now as part hawk, part man; worth flying over to look at from time to time, but never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or to kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper. JA Baker
To me he was still apparently indifferent, but he kept me in sight, when I moved, by following or flying higher. He has found a meaning for me, but I do not know what it is. I am his slow and moribund companion, Caliban to his Ariel. JA Baker
Anthropomorphism has been a staple of storytelling for every generation but zoomorphism is somewhat rarer. Much has been written about the myopic, introverted Baker’s quest to become, not just a bird but one as spectacularly gifted as the peregrine falcon. Saunders points out the spot on the dust jacket, where an author’s photo usually appears, is replaced by his favourite bird. Robert MacFarlane has recently written:
Thirteen years ago I described The Peregrine as “not a book about watching a bird, [but] a book about becoming a bird”. Baker himself often suggests a comparable process of conversion, writing of how – by means of primitive rituals of following and mimicking – “the hunter becom[es] the thing he hunts”. Now, though, I no longer believe The Peregrine is a book about “becoming a bird”. Truer to say that it is a book about “failing to become a bird”. Hauntingly, Baker wrote, these birds knew, as I knew, that the last peregrine had left the valley. They possessed the freedom I had lost.
Saunders reveals what Baker’s readers know already, that if his real life appears meek, his inner life was anything but. She knows his:
…writing bums with outrage against the carelessness of mankind towards the environment, and it is this that makes The Peregrine one of the most enduring pieces of nature writing from the last century, rather than the obscure account of an eccentric.
Saunders suggests Baker’s motivations for writing reveal his understanding of a common misconception that humans are separate from nature. This is a much less prevalent way of seeing today since Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring (1962) exposed the impact of pesticides on the environment. This hugely concerned Baker who worried that the impact on his local environment that he loved would be devastating. What I had not noted previously, until reading Saunders’ insight that Baker, in both The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer, perceives a world in which humans have become lost, literally and figuratively and has a warning of a future in which man’s position at the top of the food chain is as precarious as that of the peregrines Baker tracked. Prescient.
Saunders’ biography of Baker has an interesting structure and what would usually be considered appendices take the reader deeper into Baker’s world via his poetry, information about his archive and a photo essay. Saunders has previously described what is to be found in the JA Baker Archive but the photographs in the book bring the contents to life. The myopic Baker’s binoculars have a peculiar resonance.
My House of Sky is a beautiful book to have on the shelf. Robert MacFarlane wrote the foreword (the influence of his chapter about JA Baker in Landmarks is clearly a seminal influence on Saunders) and John Fanshawe, the afterword. Jo Sweeting’s artwork is thoughtfully evocative and readers will appreciate Christopher Matthews’ photography. Saunders’ book was crowd funded and published by Little Toller Books, who aim to “revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles”. It is a magnificent tome. I am lucky enough to have the beautifully bound, signed special edition on my shelf alongside Baker’s books.
Credit: Images by permission of Little Toller. Photography by Christopher Matthews.
This interview with Hetty Saunders provides a good introduction to both Baker and the biography she has crafted.
Other titles read during December
Orwell on Truth (2017) by George Orwell
Colin Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’: a guide for students (2012) by Colin Stanley, Colin Wilson
The Man in the High Castle (1962) By Philip K. Dick
Suburbia (2017) by Jeremy Chambers
Writers In Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light (2016) by David Burke