Author Tom Vowler explores the profound inspiration and influence he found in the classic J.A. Baker book, The Peregrine.
During composition of my second novel, That Dark Remembered Day, I became seduced by J.A. Baker’s iconic non-fiction work The Peregrine, which functions both as paean to the natural world – in particular the eponymous bird of prey – but also possesses some of the most extraordinarily beautiful sentences to have been constructed. Baker’s language functions not only on a literal, expository level, but an abstract and affective one, one that alludes to the narrator’s own (often mournful) state of mind, despite his feelings being almost entirely absent from the text beyond a rich cataloguing of the observed day. As Robert MacFarland says in its foreword, ‘The Peregrine is a book where nothing happens, again and again’, yet somehow Baker is able to maintain a sense of drama and intensity all the same. Indeed, the book achieves, if not a narrative arc, then a melancholic fabled quality, an immersive, chimeric value as the reader follows Baker’s pursuit of two wintering peregrines one year. For Baker, and for my PTSD-suffering protagonist, witnessing the birds is felt almost as a religious quality. Here The Peregrine’s author reveals the emergence of his obsession:
She drifted idly; remote, inimical. She balanced in the wind, two thousand feet above, while the white cloud passed beyond her and went across the estuary to the south. Slowly her wings curved back. She slipped smoothly through the wind, as though she were moving forward on a wire. This mastery of the roaring wind, this majesty and noble power of flight, made me shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement. Now, I thought, I have seen the best of the peregrine; there will be no need to pursue it further; I shall never want to search for it again. I was wrong of course. One can never have enough.
Peregrine kills are abundantly catalogued, their violence imagined by Baker as he examines predated carcasses, violence that suited my own allegorical needs. And so I set out to mimic Baker’s intensity and pathos (the author is troubled both by a recently-diagnosed illness and the decline of falcons from pesticide use) in aspects of narration and character in TDRD, giving my former soldier this obsession with the bird of prey to the extent an intertextuality with The Peregrine formed. Within Baker’s sublime prose is also a hint of misanthrope, primarily at human impact on peregrine numbers, an aspect that served well my character’s revulsion with the townspeople, for (what he perceives as) their bullying of his daughter, for their not having spilt their share of blood in the recent conflict.
Further, I became interested in how landscape and narrative could be linked to characters’ trauma, how they could inform each other, the former acting as both cause of and remedy for the latter.
After returning damaged by the battlefields of the Great War, Henry Williamson immersed himself in the wilds of Devon, becoming (as Richard does in TDRD) almost feral in his writing of Tarka the Otter, sleeping out overnight during long months of fieldwork, seeking, like Baker, to avoid human contact. I sought that my various landscapes, rather than merely adorning the characters (and the narrative), bring them into relief, reflecting their internal states, often saying what they could (or should) not, while also taking care not to make excessive use of this pathetic fallacy. The two aspects became inextricably bound, each a part of the other, the characters never simply inhabitants of the Falklands or the Cornish coast, but products of them. The two affect each other in constantly renewable ways: one amplifies/animates the other. And whereas topography is objective, landscape is something more subjective, so how a character regards a given place (someone’s dreary, sombre plains are another’s endlessly beautiful terrain) tells us about them without need for the author to clumsily spell it out. This is typified in Gerard Donovan’s novel Julius Winsome, where the cruel, wintry landscape reflects (and appears to shape) the protagonist’s (increasingly) cold and unemotional behaviour/narration:
Except for my dog I lived on my own, for I had never married, though I think I came near once, and even the silences were mine. It was a place built around silences.
Likewise in Tricia Wastvedt’s The River, where the whole town, across a number of generations, is shaped by the river’s presence following a tragic event on its water, something mimicked in TDRD as a decaying Highfield – the house in my novel – ‘flows’ through the text. Landscape, too, can act as objective correlative, where a well or quarry or river, something with no intrinsic value, is used to evoke an emotion in, firstly, the character, then the reader every time they’re presented with it. The landscape takes on meaning beyond its physicality, as demonstrated with Richard’s meditations on the woods behind Highfield. Here the temporal dissonance of TDRD is at its most heightened, the reader temporarily disorientated as to which landscape or mental state the protagonist occupies.
Proust regarded landscape as having four dimensions, the fourth being time, as evidenced greatly in Swann’s Way. As Adnan Mahmutovic writes in The Sense of Place in Proust and McCarthy (2015):
Proust not only describes the church and its surroundings, but he also opens up the dimension of time. He combines all manner of meanings, stories, and peoples visiting the church and talking about it. The church is a part of the world and life he is trying to dramatize. It is not a prop. It is not a museum with artefacts even though it stands in for the past that is gone. When one person steps into the church, he is using it as a part of his world, and not a thing merely to be consumed. The visitor enters with a sense of history and a knowledge of the way the church is an indispensable part of his world.
It’s this temporal quality of the natural world that my characters ponder again and again, for example when how oak trees can live for a thousand years – 300 to grow, 300 to live, 300 to die. And how, if clonal, their root systems can link up, so that if one is sick, the others provide it with nutrients, again a useful allegory. I wanted my landscapes, instead of serving purely as lyrical evocation of beautiful (or ugly) places in TDRD, to themselves become characters, imbued with a history, with a capriciousness and complexity (and therefore a stake) to rival those living within it. It became necessary for a symbiosis to occur, with landscape and character laying claim to one another, influencing each other until they became mutually dependent.
As Richard’s unit prepare themselves for battle amid the bleak terrain of the Falklands, he reflects on the sanctuary offered in the woods behind Highfield:
As they worked, his thoughts turned once more to home, of the woods above Highfield, rich with elm and ash, marking the seasons absolutely, the trees softening the wind to a whisper, filtering the sun’s blaze so that it mottled the earth. And in winter, when the cold clung to everything and ice tapered like bones from the branches, there was still comfort to be found there. The woods cocooned you in their own rhythm, embracing you, your senses mollified by their ancient splendour. But there was something ghostly about this landscape he now looked out on, with its frail sun offering little warmth, the light a sickly grey as it bled onto mile after mile of colourless scrub.
Crucially, though, I was keen to guard against a romantic pastoralism or mere aestheticizing of the natural world, to avoid the novel becoming a eulogy to landscape, a nostalgic and hyperbolic evocation of place, or what Kathleen Jamie terms ‘lovely honeyed prose’ in her at times scathing review of Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. (I did, however, weave an aspect of ecofascism, namely misanthropy, into Richard’s unhinging, which aligned well with his ultimate behaviour, albeit complicated by his PTSD.) The landscape in That Dark Remembered Day is both beautiful and harsh, its violence no more or less brutal than that which humans are capable of. And yet I wanted to make the distinction between the two, to defend – almost celebrate – the violence of the natural world, much as Ted Hughes said of his poem ‘Thrushes’, arguing that when a thrush kills a worm it acts with an ‘agile velocity [that is] a kind of stillness. At peace with essential being.’ By contrast, the man-made violence of the Falklands, and latterly the shooting spree, is of a different order entirely, one devoid of grace and logic.
Cynan Jones, in his short novel, The Dig, grafts his characters onto the rugged west Walian landscape where cruelty and violence remain ever present. By turns harrowing and beautiful, the visceral evocation of place is vital to the book’s unsettling impact. Here a sheep farmer struggles to come to terms with his wife’s violent death:
He watched the motes of mist snaking. Since her death he had asked them to stop work. There was an aftermath. The field looked battle-shocked, the ground stark, an altered sense of light. He couldn’t see the fields from the house and he was glad of that. The stumps left in the hedgerows and the sharply angled butts of hazel were bleached and obvious still. It was accusatory, something about it.
In many of the texts cited above, the natural world and mental anguish are woven together as the narrator retreats to the land, attempting to graft themselves upon it, or, in Baker’s and Williamson’s case, to metamorphose with a wild creature as they come to terms with physical or psychological unease. And my character’s only way of coping with his PTSD manifests in his pursuit of the peregrines.
In his 1996 essay, novelist Scott Russell Sanders claimed: ‘that a deep awareness of nature has been largely excluded from mainstream fiction is a measure of the narrowing and trivialisation of that fashionable current.’ Sanders goes on to evoke D.H. Lawrence, who in is essay on Thomas Hardy’s work, wrote: ‘[T]here exists a great background, vivid and vital, which matters more than the people who move upon it […] the vast, unexplored morality of life itself, what we call the immorality of nature, surrounds us in its eternal incomprehensibility, and in its midst goes on the little human morality play.’ But if Sanders’ charge is correct, and the trappings of modernity and consumerism led to nature’s neglect in the modernist novel, there’s evidence to suggest climate change, species loss and environmentalism has led to a revival, certainly in creative non-fiction and nature writing, but also, for example, in novels by Melissa Harrison and Sarah Hall.
My novel could have worked in another provincial town (especially as the location is fictional), but other elements – the Cornish coast, the Falklands – are integral to the story’s donnée. Further I was interested in how the essence of place shifts following a tragic event, specifically how it becomes inextricably synonymous with an episode in its history: Salem with witchcraft; Aberfan with the entombment of children; Hungerford, Dunblane and Columbine, as with the unnamed town in TDRD, with their arbitrary massacres. The collective trauma present in such places appears to exist independently of those living there, blurring with a mythology until the name becomes irrevocably pejorative.
Crucially, places in That Dark Remembered Day are never mere adornment or scaffolding, never simply lyrical evocations, but serve very specific purposes as either metaphor or in many cases, as characters in their own right. But it’s Baker to whom I owe the most debt, a book I return to again and again for both inspiration and comfort.
Tom is currently crowdfunding his collection of stories, Dazling the Gods via Unbound