In search of the nature writer J.A. Baker I started in the obvious place – with his works. I bought myself the Collins edition, containing both his books – The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer – and some of his diaries, as well as his only other publication, a short essay written for the RSPB about the Essex coast.
Then, I read. It was not a quick devouring but a slow process over the space of a year and a half. First, The Peregrine, read just after I had finished my MA in Nature Writing. The Peregrine is Baker’s captivating diary of a winter spent haunting the Essex countryside for peregrines. After two decades of formal education I was wondering what to do next. I was between places and The Peregrine filled in the gaps. I read it on my bed, at home, with my own bleak winterscape of gardens and rooftops outside.
Recently, I opened up my Baker anthology again to read his less well-known book, The Hill of Summer, which again charts a single season, though this time with a more general focus on the various landscapes, birds and animals of Baker’s Essex patch.
I filled up pages of my notebook with quotes and thoughts on his works and prepared to write them out. Then, I read what others had written about Baker and realised that it had all been said before, that none of my revelations were new. In his introduction to my Baker anthology, Mark Cocker writes about Baker’s use of language, how he turns nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns, about his anthropomorphism and synaesthesia. The scant details of his life have already been laid out and speculated upon many times. Others too have noted Baker’s own transformation into a peregrine-like creature, as he becomes obsessed with the bird he diligently watches.
So, what can I say about Baker that hasn’t already been said before? Only that no other writer haunts me the way J.A. Baker does. That no writer has captured my imagination quite the way he has, to the point that I am almost as intoxicated by the writer as I am by the beauty of his writing. What fascinates me – and what seems to fascinate others too – is the fact that one man could spend his whole life in one small corner of the country – a patch Mark Cocker estimates at just 550km², exploring it and writing about it with such patience, care and attention.
The lives of writer’s invariably affect how we think about their work. For instance, the works of the Brontë sisters – rightly or wrongly – are made all the more remarkable for the context of the sisters’ lives. Indeed, their works are defined even by their sisterhood. Interestingly, the Brontë sisters, and Emily in particular, are probably the only other writers that come close to haunting me the way Baker does. The thought of Emily walking on the moors adds power to her novel. So Baker’s life, revealed both through what has recently been discovered about him and, more importantly, through his own writing, adds power to his works.
Reading The Peregrine inspired me to start this blog and my first blog post was a review of The Peregrine. In my review I wrote of Baker:
There is something incredibly admirable in his dedication to one species, in one small patch of countryside. It makes me question my own sense of momentum and whether I could commit to one place on such a deep level.
At the point that I wrote that my momentum had run out somewhat. University had offered a chance to get out of the city I had lived in my whole life, but after university I was living at home again and unsure what my next move would be. Now I’ve left and set up camp in a new city. I’ve found my own ‘patch’, yet still there is this balancing act: nostalgia for home, a desire to stay still long enough to become deeply familiar with a place, and this persistent wanderlust for some unknown elsewhere. Perhaps it is a balancing act we must all perform. But it was only by staying in one place – by becoming a monomaniac – that Baker was able to write as he did.