John Alec Baker was an English author best known for The Peregrine, which won the Duff Cooper Prize in 1967. Robert Macfarlane deemed it to be "a masterpiece of twentieth-century non-fiction" in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition of the book. On the back jacket cover of the same edition, James Dickey states that the book "transcends any 'nature writing' of our time," while Barry Lopez declares the book to be "one of the most beautifully written, carefully observed and evocative wildlife accounts I have ever read." Werner Herzog called it the "one book I would ask you to read if you want to make films," and said elsewhere "... it has prose of the caliber that we have not seen since Joseph Conrad."
The book recounts a single year from October to April (probably of 1962/3) from the author's ten-year obsession with the peregrines that wintered near his home in Chelmsford, Essex in eastern England. The writing is lyrically charged throughout, as the author's role of diligent observer gives way to a personal transformation, as Baker becomes, in the words of James Dickey on the book's jacket cover, "a fusion of man and bird."
Baker's only other book is 1969's The Hill of Summer, a lyrical and somewhat visionary account of summer's progress across the wilder parts of southern England. Though not as famous as The Peregrine, it enjoys much the same reputation for literary beauty and naturalist precision.
In 2011, Collins published a new edition of The Peregrine which also included The Hill of Summer and extracts from his diaries. The book includes an introduction by Mark Cocker and notes by John Fanshawe. Prior to this book, little was known about Baker's personal life but this has now changed. He was born on 6 August 1926 and lived in Chelmsford, Essex. He secondary education was at King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford His books are based largely on his observations of birds in the Essex countryside especially in the area from Chelmsford to the coast. He was unable to drive (despite working for the Automobile Association) and travelled by bicycle. From around 1970 he suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis and contracted cancer as a result of the drugs taken to alleviate the arthritis. He died on 26 December 1987.
The University of Essex holds items associated with J A Baker. These include his diaries, drafts of his books, corrected proofs, correspondence and his optical equipment used when birdwatching. The archive was catalogued in 2016 by Hetty Saunders and is now open to all those interested in Baker's life and work. In 2017 Little Toller Books will publish the first biography of J A Baker, written by Saunders.