The cover image for Tim Dee’s new meditation on the natural world is an aerial shot of harvested fields. At the very top of the photograph, almost out of frame, is a farmhouse.
by Tim Dee
Jonathan Cape, 277pp, £18.99
The fields themselves are scored – you could say scarred – by the tracks of a harvester, now out of sight. It’s a landscape firmly under human control, yet with an eerie, transcendent power. In the geometric beauty of the farmer’s to-and-fro traverses is something precarious: a reality older than anything man-made. The photo neatly captures a relationship with nature that’s intriguingly complex.
The image, by the late Mario Giacomelli, is a fitting complement to Dee’s own perspective: observing nature from ground level. His acclaimed The Running Sky: A Birdwatcher’s Life had readers looking heavenwards with new attentiveness, but here he brings his idiosyncratic mix of birdwatcher’s obsession, magpie intellect and poetic sensibility to a rumination on, among other things, what’s beneath our feet.
He takes us to four fields he has come to know: one near his home in the Cambridgeshire fens, one in Zambia (the tobacco farm that featured in The Running Sky), one in the prairies of Montana and one – if you can truly call it that – in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine.
The Cambridgeshire field provides the book’s backbone; some feat, when you consider the insubstantial, waterlogged fen from which it was dredged sometime in the 1600s, and to which it could soon return.
Dee visits season after season, reporting its changing moods and, tantalisingly as ever, tracking its birdlife. His descriptions are constantly inventive; wry, and fearless, as when Burwell Fen is discovered soggy with snow-melt that, Dylan Thomas-like, has been “dumped greasily about the flattened, school-dinner grass”.
But he does much more than conjure images. He digs up ancient place names and their meanings, brings to life the days when the fens were a sailor’s gateway to the open sea, muses on the consequences of man’s constant fiddling with the landscape, and puts the whole debate in context by delving back into prehistory.
When it comes to defining a field, he asks our indulgence. His Zambian example is rapidly returning to bush. This is a sorry episode: the ex-pat farm owner has died and his widow is sick, and broke. The African workers have stayed because they have nowhere else to go.
Dee muses on the harsh realities of farming on the continent, and on the fateful move from a nomadic, herding life to settled agriculture for the African people. Bad decisions have been made on this farm. Nature, you sense, is poised for a comeback.
Yet it’s here that Dee has an exhilarating encounter with an evolutionary wonder: a honeyguide bird that lures him and his farm-worker companion to a bee’s nest, from which they retrieve a huge honeycomb, as impressive “as a block of flats at sunset”. They leave a portion of it behind for the bird. Not far away, Dee makes a more grisly discovery: the remains of three newly hatched bee-eater chicks, killed, cuckoo-style, by the imposter honeyguide in their underground nest. It’s a cruel world. The contrast with the lush, bucolic fens is profound.
The chapter on Chernobyl is unnerving. In a field outside the abandoned village of Vesniane in the Exclusion Zone, where trees push through the roofs of bus shelters, the earth supports some ghastly mutations: swallows with beaks that will not close, or with feet pointing in opposite directions. Dee is helping monitor grasshoppers in the radioactive zone, but it’s the swallows that stay in the mind. Their wondrous homing instinct is the stuff of tragedy here: it’s killing them, but they cannot stay away.
For all the birds glimpsed in this book, grass is the uniting theme, practically and metaphorically. Dee reminds himself of the Psalmist’s line: “All life is but as grass” in a work that is part wildlife notebook, part geography lesson, philosophical treatise, literary compendium. The literary references come tumbling – dauntingly, until you settle into the rhythm. Once settled, you realise you’re immersed in a project as expansive, and as mesmerising, as a fenland sky.
• Tim Dee is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 18 August.