Friday, July 25, 2008

`The Hill of Summer'

One of the few indelible books I’ve read in the last year – a book that goes on nagging and comforting like an old friend -- was The Peregrine by J.A. (John Alec) Baker, the almost anonymous English librarian who seems to have evaporated out of existence. Even his death is uncertain. Go here to read what I wrote about The Peregrine, published in 1967 and returned to print in 2005. Baker’s only other book was The Hill of Spring (1969), which I’ve just started to read. It, too, is peculiar and beautiful, like an unfamiliar species spotted in the field but not found in the field guide.

One finishes reading The Peregrine assuming Baker had nowhere to go. He wished to become a hawk, and he did. The book is structured as a quest, with the bird as grail. In the end, Baker seems to merge with it. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Hill of Spring is that it was written at all. In a weird sense, it is posthumous, and the weirdness starts with the title, which Baker takes from the first line of A Shropshire Lad XXXV. He uses the first two lines as his epigraph:

“On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.

“Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.

“East and west on fields forgotten
Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads and dead and rotten;
None that go return again.

“Far the calling bugles hollo,
High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
Woman bore me, I will rise.”

In isolation, the first two lines betray no hint of the military theme to follow, nor do the first 20 pages of Baker’s book. Typically, Housman’s poem withholds a blunt statement of theme. To call it anti- or pro-war, or even patriotic, is presumptuous, though it appears to have been written after the start of the Boer War. This may serve Baker’s purpose. Like Housman, he’s a poet of oblique moves. Like a magician, he encourages us to look at one thing while he works on another.
The book’s 12 chapters run April through September – summer in the broadest sense. Here’s the first paragraph of the first chapter, “April: Woods and Field”:

“The hill slopes steeply down through the green woodland mist, the uncertain haze of spring. The air above seems slowly to descend. A footpath gleams and dwindles between plantations of dense fir, dark reluctant trees in sombre strata, where poplars faintly shine. The pale coppery-yellow poplar leaves are still uncurling. Under the soft grey of the early morning clouds, they shine with their own perpetual sunlight. They are large enough now to flutter vaguely in the rising breeze, moving on their flattened stalks like bronze-colored butterflies.”

One of Baker’s stylistic trademarks is unexpected word choice. “Uncertain,” “plantations,” “reluctant” and “perpetual” all surprise. I particularly like “uncertain haze” and “footpath gleams and dwindles.” This is tricky. A rare or exotic word comes off as self-conscious and distracting, but Baker is a careful judge of his own style. This opening has the effect of a curtain rising on a scene. It’s muted, Chekhovian. No animals, only plants, appear but for the butterfly-imitating poplar leaves.

The book consists exclusively of Baker and the natural world in East Anglia. All the biology is Baker’s own. He never refers to biologists or their books. In passing, he mentions his bicycle. He observes a ruined house reclaimed by nature. It’s the home of a barn owl. Baker never speculates about the humans who once lived there. His use of the first-person singular is spare. The effect, despite Baker’s attention to detail and obvious skill as an amateur naturalist, is to render his world dreamlike. The sighting of a kestrel passes for plot. Thus far the book’s only structure is the cycle of the seasons. One wonder’s if Baker’s apparent lack of interest in humanity is related to his silence after The Hill of Spring. Is a biographer working on his life? A brief "About the Author" note at the end of the book reports:

“From an early age, Mr. Baker’s one ambition was to be a writer, but it was not until he happened to see a peregrine hawk `stoop’ above a coastal estuary in East Anglia, and wrote his first book, The Peregrine, that his two obsessions, nature and writing, were fused."


Anonymous said...

The Peregrine is one of my favourite books. For some reason i always associate it with the 14th Century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, maybe it's the season.

Kevin said...

"A rare or exotic word comes off as self-conscious and distracting [...]."

Not necessarily. That's a modern prejudice, or so it seems to me.

At any rate, that's just a little quibble. I appreciate your excellent reviews of an author whose works are far too little known today. I hope than a reasonably priced reprint of The Hill of Summer soon becomes available. It's now rather scarce and expensive.

Melissa said...

Confused about whether the book you are referring to is called 'The Hill of Spring' or 'The Hill of Summer'. You mention both, but also say he only wrote one book after 'The Peregrine'. Could you clarify?