In this installment of ‘The Artist’s Library,’ a recurring series in ‘Ursula’ in which writer and editor Sarah Blakley-Cartwright speaks with artists about a favorite book on their shelves, Matthew Day Jackson discusses J.A. Baker’s ‘The Peregrine’ and what it means to see, fly, and think like a falcon. Published in 1967, the book recounts the author’s fascination with the peregrine falcons that spent their winter near his home in eastern England. Written as a diary covering the months from October 1962 to April 1963, Baker’s lyrical prose borders on obsession as he seeks to watch, track, and ultimately become one with the eponymous falcon.
Sarah Blakley-Cartwright: Thank you for introducing me to this book, Matt. How did you first come across it? Matthew Day Jackson: I’m friends with a cinematographer who did all of the high-altitude filming for this ski company in Wilson, Wyoming, called Teton Gravity Research. He’s really creative, very much an artist, but also deeply technical. He had developed this amazing gimbal that rests on the front of a helicopter—if you look at images from Teton Gravity Research they are all of these really horrifying ski lines that are being filmed, and he is the person filming. One night we met at a bar called the Stagecoach in Wilson, and he was asking me how I do what I do, and I was curious about how he does what he does, and I mentioned that Werner Herzog has a film school. He applied and got in, but he’s a skier—he injured himself and was unable to go. But he got his hands on the reading list, and Werner Herzog considers this book essential reading. SBC: I saw that. Herzog claims to only see three or four films a year. And he assigns just four texts at the Rogue Film School. That’s Virgil’s ‘Georgics,’ a few pieces of Icelandic poetry, the Warren Commission’s report on Kennedy’s assassination, and this book. How do you think this book might be useful for students of film? MDJ: Some of the greatest technology in cinema has been about dismembering the camera from the human experience to provide a resource of imagery that isn’t tethered to how we see things. The gimbal on the helicopter is free of any imperfection of human handling. In ‘The Peregrine,’ you see Baker trying to imagine himself flying in the air to reach crazy speeds with beautiful agility. SBC: And to see like the falcon.
‘Binoculars, and a hawk-like vigilance, reduce the disadvantage of myopic human vision.’
MDJ: If a falcon was human-sized, its eyeball would weigh three pounds. Their eyes are much larger, proportionally, than our eyes. And where they’re placed on their head creates a much wider field of vision. Baker talks about the gray flatness of human sight—but we’re able to see the straight line. We believe in the straight line, which then makes us see the straight line.
‘The peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endlessly varying quadrilateral shapes of fields. He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries.’
SBC: You mentioned that this book has become essential to you in the last six months. Was there anything that stuck out to you especially in this reading? Was there anything you’d forgotten that you were surprised to rediscover? MDJ: The monotony. Did you ever Google Earth where he was trampling around? It’s tiny. He’s hemmed in. Meanwhile, the falcon soars in a space much greater than that of land or surface on earth.
Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of color that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.
SBC: Baker was possessed by this single-minded focus for a decade, his life’s timetable consumed by the hawks’ departures and arrivals, persevering across fenlands and estuaries through all seasons. MDJ: And then when he finds it it’s sleeping! In order to read this, you have to resign yourself to it. SBC: It’s an eccentric text. You have to get into that rhythmic cycle of the pursuit and the encounter. It becomes a powerful ritual.
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 farther; I shall never want to search for it again. I was wrong of course. One can never have enough.
MDJ: Did you ever see the movie ‘War Games’ with Matthew Broderick? A computer is hacked and programmed to launch all the nuclear weapons—the computer is just searching for its code. And it’s just a matter of probability. SBC: It’ll land on it eventually. MDJ: Eventually it’s going to find it. So it’s just like the numbers, beeeep beep, and then it finds it and goes to the next one, beep beep beep. There are these things that I’m consistently fascinated with and then they just click into place and then form material. SBC: Would you say this aspect of the book, the extremity, is relevant to you and your project? MDJ: I am a mountain person, my love for the snow and my love for the mountains is as deep as the marrow in my bones. I can’t talk about it without getting emotional.
‘Approach him across unfettered ground with steady, unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts.’
SBC: As the book progresses, Baker recedes as an individual and these divisions dissolve. Even the pronouns collapse at intervals such that he and the bird become inseparable. Suddenly it’s we.
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 gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.
SBC: He steps out of himself and into the falcon suit. I’m thinking of your ‘Portrait of the Artist’ (2015), in which you’ve tucked, or nested, human anatomy into a wolverine pelt. MDJ: I placed myself inside a wolverine. We all fantasize about being able to see through someone else’s eyes. Of course, I sound like a little kid imagining myself to be a great beast. But I think of the wolverine as the spirit animal of the artist. The wolverine is solitary but needs other wolverines to make more wolverines. I think of artists in this way, and strangely through the pandemic this analogy seems to hold water. Also, the wolverine punches above its weight class, and I think of artists as some of the most resilient creatures I know. Also, I think wolverines are cute, so there’s that too. SBC: In the prose, there are inversions: down is up, the skyline is the low hull of the submarine. Looking at things sideways, at a tilt, upside down, it becomes clear that we’re seeing as the falcon sees.
‘The valley sinks into mist, and the yellow orbital ring of the horizon closes over the glaring cornea of the sun. The eastern ridge blooms purple, then fades to inimical black. The earth exhales into the cold dusk. Frost forms in hollows shaded from the afterglow. Owls wake and call. The first stars hover and drift down. Like a roosting hawk, I listen to the silence and gaze into the dark.’
SBC: You fall into this sway of these very vertiginous sentences and almost feel you could tip off the edge of them. It’s an intimate merging, this almost alchemical transmutation of him and this hawk. MDJ: To describe the peregrine’s observation is a fantasy. I don’t think it’s sexual, but I think it’s somewhere nearing that. SBC: Everything in this landscape is disappearing. We now know that Baker had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis while writing this book. The author was disappearing into his illness, as well as into the bird within the text. The hawk is elusive. The birds that the hawk preys upon are enveloped into the hawk. Beneath all this is the knowledge that, in the 1960s, the peregrine as a species was at high risk, without preservation efforts, of disappearing quietly into extinction.
‘Books about birds show pictures of the peregrine, and the text is full of information. Large and isolated in the gleaming whiteness of the page, the hawk stares back at you, bold, statuesque, brightly colored. But when you have shut the book, you will never see that bird again. Compared with the close and static image, the reality will seem dull and disappointing. The living bird will never be so large, so shiny-bright. It will be deep in landscape, and always sinking farther back, always at the point of being lost.’
But finally, after all this merging, Baker is trapped in his own species. He can’t soar like the hawk, he can’t drop at 240 miles an hour.
MDJ: At the moment Baker is writing this, he is aware of his physical health. SBC: His illness is the subterranean topic of the book. It’s not on the page, ever. Which is not to say that death isn’t everywhere in the book. MDJ: With an autoimmune disease, healthy tissue is being recognized as disease. And there is something about the senselessness of it. To a certain degree, there is a loathing of himself. Of the particular vessel that he’s been put into. This human form that can’t support itself anymore. Rheumatoid arthritis is essentially your body undoing itself. All of its natural tools undo the healthy parts, so that everything is kind of working correctly but in the wrong way.
‘Whatever is destroyed, the act of destruction does not vary much. Beauty is the vapor from the pit of death.’
He was likely in quite a bit of pain while experiencing all of the things that he describes. Leaving his emotions out is a way to salve some of that pain. I have a personal awareness of that to a certain degree. Because I have multiple sclerosis and managed and it actually is the best thing that ever happened to me. SBC: How did your time spent in Somerset prime you for this book? MDJ: I rode my bike and I ran. Being able to experience England in this way, the text becomes so much richer. The melancholy in the text is rooted in the soil that has been trampled by feet for thousands of years in exactly the same place. The island has seen overtures of humanity ebbing and flowing, of religions coming and going, of conquerors coming and going. All of those things are recorded in the landscape. SBC: When you’re out in nature, how do you process what you see? Do you record anything? MDJ: I don’t. It takes me a while to shed anxiety, and the things that I’m thinking about, and the construction of a life that I’ve made.