J.A. Baker 1967. The Peregrine. 2017 edition with afterword by Robert Macfarlane. William Collins: London, 217 pp.

This is a book that one would never stop reading. Although on the face of it a simple diary of John Alec Baker following and watching peregrine falcons in Essex, it is simply the finest writing on nature ever published. Acutely observed, inventive allusions, concise, and above all an utter joy to read. Each sentence stands alone. From a different genre, perhaps only his contemporary, Patrick Leigh Fermor, stands a distant comparison. It is nice to think that they may have read each other’s books.

Now and then Baker interrupts to write darkly of destructive humans. At the time he observed and wrote (1963-1966), coastal developments accelerated almost unchecked and burds of prey were in almost global decline due to pesticides. Peregrines can still be seen in his coastal Essex estuary and environs, although now they are much more often seen around the cities where high nest sites and pigeons are abundant.

John Alec Baker devoted three years to following and learning about peregrines and wrote daily diaries from which the present book, one “year” April to April, was extracted (he apparently destroyed the peregrine parts from his original notes). This and much more is learned from Robert Macfarlane’s afterword: Although Baker hardly mentions himself, his long almost daily peregrinations seeking peregrines must have cost him dearly, he suffered terribly from an ankylosing arthritis. Baker always went out in tweed. He was also myopic, and relied heavily on binoculars and a telescope. No less a mystic than Werner Herzog rates this as Required, and it is true that The Cave of Forgotten Dreams drips of the cult of The Peregrine.