For a decade, JA Baker, an arthritic office worker living in Essex, tracked a pair of peregrines across the landscape of eastern England—a landscape that was, to him, "as profuse and glorious as Africa.” He then compressed, with diamond-like intensity, his daily notes into a single diary spanning October to April. Though repetitious in structure, his writing is nevertheless characterized by a dynamic, high-impact prose-poetry that is startling and violently beautiful, like a peregrine hunting a murmuration of starlings. Written at a time when peregrines were on the verge of extinction due to the eggshell-thinning effects of DDT, this book is an elegy to a vanishing species. Despite this it is not a typical work of "green” literature. As prophetic as it is poetic, Baker’s writing is suffused with rage at human rapacity, and at our species' carelessness toward nature. Most memorably, as Baker’s unremitting pursuit goes on, the boundaries between human and bird increasingly blur until the human becomes nearly indistinguishable from the non-human. Like a songbird being overtaken in flight, the human heart passes backward into the shadow of The Peregrine and does not reemerge unchanged.
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The Roots of Heaven is perhaps the first great work of eco-philosophical fiction. Evoking Conrad in its structure, and Camus in its lyricism and lucidity, it is singular in the scope and sheer force of its moral vision. At the heart of the novel we find Morel: a former dentist who attributes his sanity and survival in a Nazi concentration camp to visions of elephants freely roaming the vast African plains, and who undertakes a noble, if at times quixotic, campaign to save Africa’s elephant herds from relentless poaching. His campaign is embraced and rejected by a cast of well-drawn characters from all walks of life who struggle to endure post-war disillusionment in French Equatorial Africa, and who suffer deep loneliness and longing. Just what the elephants ultimately symbolize—Gary himself insisted that they are not actually symbols at all—is up to every individual reader. In any case, the novel is as relevant today as when it was published. In a world that seems increasingly precarious and estranged from nature, this novel is a lucid, compassionate, comical, and heartbreaking reminder that humanity needs a fuller recognition of shared fate, a wider margin of tolerance and empathy, and, perhaps above all, something bigger and stronger than itself to lean on.