Thursday, June 30, 2016

John Alec Baker

John Alec Baker (1926 - 1987) was born and lived in Essex, England. He left school at the age of sixteen and worked at the Automobile Association and later for the soft drink company Britvic. He was forty-one when he published his first book, The Peregrine, the culmination of what he described as a ten-year fascination with hawks.

- From the inside cover of The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

* * *

Driving home from work yesterday I saw a guy walking on the sidewalk. He moved slowly, with some difficulty up the very slight incline of the shaved and dimpled handicap access curbs that corner all new streets. He was tallish, heavy, his musculature soft, sagging - as if from long idleness, and he had a backpack clinging to him like a papoose. He appeared to be in his mid-late fifties (my age) and he looked like death would soon overtake him if could not ever find a way to move just a bit faster: the flat, wide sidewalks too much for him to bear. He thereafter entered a bar.

What does his home look like? What are the rituals of long, quiet decay? Did he eat standing at the sink? in front of the television or computer? Was he alone? Who knew him? At ten, could he have imagined the life he now lived? Of course not, but once he imagined something other than a slow walk to a bar. We bolt out into the world and some simply fade, fall to the side, as anonymous as any, but somehow more so: an accumulation of food eaten, chances taken, missed, bungled, a clot of redemption, a knot of unknowability and the unfair judgment of passersby.

How can this be? How can we remain unknown, unknowable? Were we not once loved? If not by a mother or father, but surely a friend, a lover? Is it possible to live a life without a fraction of love? And what have we done with it, our one wild and precious life? 

* * *

I am haunted by rivers, by winter skies, by winds and weather that are indifferent to me. I have stood along canyon edges and felt myself annihilated by the time it took for the water to cut the rock. I have wished for eyes that could see more than I am capable of - to look into the distant, dim past and look for hints of my arrival - but can only see to my front door. If I am honest, this is who I am, this is what occupies me, but often, always often I am dishonest and am busy in other thoughts: 

Perhaps there remains for us some tree on a hillside,
which every day we can take into our vision;
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.
There remains for us yesterday's street
and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease.

The habit at its ease, the easy pattern of low expectation and making it to the next paycheck, the companionable slide into wanting less, being less, accepting less becomes a default setting which allows you the pleasure of not noticing others in their plight, in their days, in their hopes. If you don't see, then you cannot be troubled and an untroubled life is better than one turned and roiled by thoughts that go nowhere, have no answer or at best are unsatisfactory.

A man in his fifties walks slowly on the streets of Elburn, IL and heads into a saloon. What the hell am I thinking? Could it not just as easily be the case that he is delighted with his life, his work and the slowness in his step is part of a recovery? It is impossible to know, unless I knew him.

* * *

In 1968, a man named J.A. Baker published an odd and beautiful book, The Peregrine. He worked for a soda maker. He was married. Something, unnamed, unmoored him: illness, a breakdown, something. He went into the wintered fields near his home and watched the hawks to cease being as he was. He took notes. He saw another book come into the world a year later and then not another word was spoken. He died at 61. The story he left behind, the clues he left behind are incandescent in their fury and elegiac despair at ever ceasing to be what one was: hunter and hunted. Time, you know? And while my eyes fall to the easy habit of searching out odd voices, my honest habit looks to all that is missing in the biography of such a man, of any man, woman or child who ever bolted out onto this plain, this vista of experience and was known not.

You, my best beloved, are anonymous to all but a handful, and I to you. Perhaps I leak out some information here and there and you may have a picture of me, but I assure you it is just a framing device, a fiction that allows me to speak at all. This is our fate: to see the world and not be able to impress upon it our existence. Kilroy was here, alright, but unless another is there to read the graffito, then Kilroy wasn't there at all. It is this sense of needing another to close the circle that births the impulse to create, to speak, to move, to hammer at stone so that another might find it and know something of the one who came before. It is the home of elegy, of annihilation of a self bound by its fearful smallness and its burgeoning into life, connection, communion with the things on this plain: hawk, canyon, river, sky.

And this, too: solitary men and women confronting their fates and being moved to action, to plant their feet, plant a flag and proclaim: this mattered.

* * *

A three sentence biography, the coldest of obituaries, will not suffice. The slow walking man in Elburn is vastly more than I imagined for him. He contains dozens, hundreds of lives that have crossed his, of which he was part, of which he is heir to. If he is wounded then that makes him my brother. If the bar is his wintered field where he struggles to understand, then so be it. Even the anonymous live lives of feral glory, of feral sadness and we are all anonymous save but for the few closest to us. And since that is the case, be kind to them. They will, in their turn, struggle and will need to know  how you managed, where you went looking for hawks.

I wish you well.



  1. That was a very moving essay Mark, I'll see if I can find a copy of The Peregrine.
    Love your writing, ST