In the days of Columbus and Magellan, much of the world's surface remained unknown. Cartographers had to leave entire sections of their maps blank. Such lacunae were often marked off from the rest of the world with the warning, “Beyond this point, there be dragons.”
For me, one of the joys of civilization is that it's been around so long. Ever since Euripides first put quill to parchment, writers of every stripe have described the human condition, scribbling out their prescriptions for how we might—despite our knowledge of evil, our foreknowledge of death—live a good, proper, and happy life. Much of what they have written still exists, and most of that is well-known, part and parcel of our modern mindscape. Of the remainder, though some lies essentially lost to us in obscure monastic archives and private ducal libraries, a significant portion remains to be re-discovered, hidden away in plain sight upon the lesser-visited shelves of our very public libraries. So it is that, looking out at the great shelves of our own Talbot County Free Library, I sometimes see an ancient, time-worn map and think: “Beyond this point, there be hidden treasure.”
The Peregrine, by J. A. Baker, came out to rave reviews in 1967, and then, for all intents and purposes, its author fell off the face of the planet. For half a century it lay forgotten, its secrets and intricate beauties become as mute as the dust that, year after year, settled upon its spine. Then one day I came across a passing reference to the work in Tim Dee's A Year on the Wing, and soon Baker's long-dead words were once again illuminating a living, breathing human mind.
The Peregrine chronicles a season J. A. Baker spent riding around on a bicycle (he never learned to drive) in pursuit of two peregrine falcons over-wintering near his home in Essex. Much of what he saw in that landscape of estuary, shoreline, field and fen will sound familiar to residents of the Eastern Shore (“Young peregrines are fascinated by the endless pouring up and drifting down of the white plume of gulls at the brown wake of the plough. While the autumn ploughing lasts, they will follow the white-bannered tractors from field to field across the valley. They seldom attack. They just like to watch.”), but all of what he wrote will delight you. Though long forgotten, The Peregrine must surely rank among the greatest natural histories ever written.
Better still, it permits me to extend that metaphor of the ancient, time-worn map, for though our local library doesn't own a copy of The Peregrine, Baltimore's Enoch Pratt does. Thanks to our library's new inter-library loan system, I can now go online at home, search for, order, and have shipped to our library—absolutely free of charge—a book from any public library in Maryland. And so can you. It's easy. Give me a call at the library (410-822-1626) and I'll walk you through it. Soon you too may look at the great shelves of our Talbot County Free Library and, in your mind's eye, see their lengths extend out across an old and yellowed map all the way to the Alleghenies.