The Peregrine by J. A. Baker

J. A. Baker’s 1967 book The Peregrine does not have the word magic in the title, nor does it appear in the esoteric section of a bookshop where it prefers to masquerade as a book of nature writing. It is, in fact, a deep treatise on spirit work.

It is an unusual and strange book by any standards that won awards in its day but might have had a hard time finding publication now. The book begins with a preface that sets out the background, Baker had been ‘hunting’ Peregrines for ten years before he came to write the book. There is then a short chapter on the natural history of the Peregrine (which, it must be said, contains some things which all other authorities find questionable). And then the bulk of the book is a diary of one winter of hunting Peregrines across the flat estuaries of Essex between Chelmsford and the North Sea.

The diary section is written in luminous prose but describes the same day over and over. Each day he sets out into the landscape, he makes observations of the weather and the other bird and wildlife, he tracks down kills made by the peregrines, and then he describes the activities of the peregrine pair he has been watching. There is none of the narrative drive that normally sustains the reading of a diary. Instead, it feels like a repetitive meditation spread over months. This largest part of the book feels not so much like reading a diary but more like reading one of those rare types of book, the journal of a magician involved in a long working, or perhaps a dream diary: there is a rather dream-like quality to the whole thing.

The sense of the peregrines as spirits and the writer as magician or shaman is utterly pervasive in this book. The operant magician will already be alerted to this in the preface where Baker describes how to get the attention of these incredible birds.

“To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds, it fears the unpredictable. Enter and leave the same fields at the same time each day, soothe the hawk from its wildness by a ritual of behaviour as invariable as its own. Hood the glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting face, assume the stillness of a tree.”

Recognition and acceptance are gained by things a Solomonic grimoire magician would recognise: special clothing, special actions, and ritual timing. And the hooding, hiding, and shading of the eyes, hands, and face seem very familiar to the aesthetic practices like fasting and cleanliness which are known by magicians today to make ourselves more comprehensible, more visible to spirits.

If that paragraph were not enough to pique the interest of the magician, further down the same page Baker is talking about directionality.

“Direction has colour and meaning. South is a bright, blocked place, opaque and stifling; West is a thickening of the earth into trees, a drawing together, the great beef side of England, the heavenly haunch; North is open, bleak, a way to nothing; East is a quickening in the sky, a beckoning of light, a storming suddenness of sea.”

This is not only beautifully written but is also a very advanced and nuanced understanding of the importance of directionality in magic. The directions he describes are both universal and have something of the specific about them. He is writing in the landscape of Essex on the far Eastern tip of England and so, of course, when he writes of the West he feels the weight and size of the land in that direction. He would have written that differently had he been in Cornwall. All his directions are specific to his embodied situation but also recognisable to anyone (particularly in the northern hemisphere) as more universal too. In his introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of the book Robert Macfarlane takes notice of this directionality that runs through the book.

“…he names his own place into being. He speaks of “the South,” “the North,” “the East,” and “the West.” He inhabits a cardinal landscape.”

For Macfarlane this usage is about a literary technique that makes a landscape strange and new to readers who might know it very well, but it is also about creating a new place through which to move and, in which to encounter these astonishing bird spirits. Baker’s way of being in place is magical.

It is clear from the way that he writes of his time in the flat and bleak landscape that he is walking there in the imaginal. This is advanced magic indeed. For most, the imaginal is a place accessed through meditation and journeying, or perhaps in dream, but rarely with eyes wide open striding through the claggy mud of Essex farmland. But there is plenty of evidence that Baker is in exactly that place. Those who have experienced it will recognise the first ‘state of mind’ component that Baker describes early on in his journal.

“I went down into the fields and across to the estuary again, not thinking, moving only on the rim of thought, content to see and absorb the day.”

And later after a particularly visionary day he describes how he finally

“…became aware of my own weight, as though I had been floating upon water and was now beached and dry and clothed and inglorious again.”

It is during these embodied forays into the imaginal that he encounters the Peregrines. For him, they are always specific, two birds, probably the same pair which overwintered in that territory, but for the reader it is clear he might have called this book just ‘Peregrine’. These birds are spirit creatures and the place we have contact with spirits is in the imaginal realm. Baker’s entering the imaginal enables him to meet them in a way that the average birdwatcher with a pair of binoculars only begins to feel.

Baker always describes himself as ‘hunting’ peregrines and though of course he is not hunting them to death, we know he wants to evoke similarities with hunting in ancient or indigenous cultures where the hunter is understood to have a magical identification with the prey. There are times in the book when that identification is almost complete. On finding a peregrine kill in a field he notices that the peregrine is watching him from nearby

“I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gair, their aimless ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.”

He knows how the hawk sees the world as it looks out through ‘rage-filled’, ‘sulphurous’ eyes,

“All the monstrous artifacts of man are natural, untainted things to them. All that is still is dead. All that moves, and stops, and does not move again, then very slowly dies. Movement is like colour to a hawk; it flares upon the eye like crimson flame.”

And in one very memorable passage he is describing the landscape as it is seen by the hawk and doesn’t even pause to wonder how he knows what it looks like as the hawk takes off and wheels up into the sky, describing the ascending view in detail until

“…beyond, beyond all, he saw the straight-ruled shine of the sea floating like a rim of mercury on the surface of the brown and white land. The sea, rising as he rose, lifted its blazing storm of light, and thundered freedom to the land-locked hawk.”

 It took Baker 10 years to gain this level of magical proficiency so that every day as he cycled from the house to the fens, fields, and estuary, he also entered this waking, embodied, imaginal place and could be sure most days of an encounter with Peregrine that involved identification and communication. He could have changed that ‘hunting’ by one letter and truthfully said he was ‘haunting’ the peregrines.

Having identified this magician at work, the next legitimate question is why? What did he gain from this intimate and long-term relationship with such an incredible spirit as Peregrine? There is another presence in the book, pervasively, and that is Death. It seems that Peregrine taught Baker about Death. He is never explicit about personal details. Macfarlane reads a recent diagnosis into the background of the book but there has been more biographical work done on Baker since which might have changed that assessment. It is certainly true that Death is on almost every page of this book. Right in the preface Baker sets up this presence.

“I shall try to make plain the bloodiness of the killing. Too often this has been slurred over by those who defend hawks. Flesh-eating man is in no way superior. It is so easy to love the dead.”

Baker searches not only for the birds but for their kills. A peregrine kill is easy to recognise: usually other birds, they are found on their backs, wings and heads usually untouched but with the chest plucked of feathers and then ripped open by the hawks murderous beak. Baker’s identification with the hawk leads him into a visceral appreciation of Death.

“Two kills by the river: kingfisher and snipe. The snipe lay half-submerged in flooded grass, cryptic even in death. The kingfisher shone in mud at the river’s edge, like a brilliant eye. He was tattered with blood, stained with the blood-red colour of his stumpy legs that were stiff and red as sticks of sealing-wax, cold in the lapping ripple of the river. He was like a dead star, whose green and turquoise light still glimmers down through the long light-years.”

Day after day he describes these kills. Surrounded by so much carnage he begins to understand Death in nature more broadly and one day in particular the depth of winter he is surrounded by nothing but Death of all kinds

“Two dead herons lay in the snow together, like a pair of gaunt grey crutches; eyeless and tattered corpses, torn and shredded by many shapes of tooth and beak and claw. Otter tracks led to fish-blood and the bones of pile. A moorhen was dragged back and down under water by a pike that lanced up at it through a hole in the ice; it tilted up and over and sank like a torpedoed ship.”

He begins to wrestle with the sight of beauty within Death,

“A day of blood; of sun, snow, and blood. Blood-red! What a useless adjective that is. Nothing is a beautifully, richly red as flowing blood on snow. It is strange that the eye can love what the mind and body hate.”

Sometimes he states it more clearly and with less anguish

“The striving of birds to kill, or to save themselves from death, if beautiful to see. The greater the beauty the more terrible the death.”

As the ice of midwinter closes in on the landscape, Death becomes so inescapable for him, no matter how it is caused that he takes a further ritual step

“I feel compelled to lie down in the numbing density of silence, to companion and comfort the dying in these cold depths at the foot of the solstice: those that have fled from the falcon in the sky, from the hawk in the dark of the wood, from the foxes, stoats, and weasels, now running over the frozen fields, from the otter swimming in the icy brook; those whose blood now courses from the hunting frost, whose frail hearts choke in the clawed frost’s bitter grip.”  

Spirits are often teachers. It took Baker a long time, I am sure, to get to an understanding of the ritual and state of consciousness necessary to invoke Peregrine but this book is a record of the result. Peregrine taught J. A. Baker about Death.

More than any book I have read with magic in the title, this is a book of practical magic that teaches us how to communicate and be with spirits.

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