Tim Dee argues that we must attend to what we have made of the wild, to look at and think about the way we have messed things up but also to notice how we have kept going alongside nature, to listen to the conversation we have had with grass and fields
Tim Dee, Four Fields, Jonathan Cape, 2013.
"In his first book since The Running Sky Tim Dee tells the story of four green fields. Four fields spread around the world: their grasses, their hedges, their birds, their skies and their natural and human histories. Four real fields – walkable, mappable, mowable and knowable, but also secretive, mysterious, wild, contested and changing. Four fields – the oldest and simplest and truest measure of what a man needs in life – looked at, thought about, worked in, lived with, written.
These four fields, which he has known for more than twenty years, are the fen field at the bottom of his Cambridgeshire garden, a field in southern Zambia, a prairie battlefield in Little Bighorn, Montana, USA, and a grass meadow in the Exclusion Zone at Chernobyl, Ukraine. Meditating on these four fields, Dee makes us look anew at where we live and how. He argues that we must attend to what we have made of the wild, to look at and think about the way we have messed things up but also to notice how we have kept going alongside nature, to listen to the conversation we have had with grass and fields. Four fields is a profound, lyrical book by one of Britain’s very best writers about nature."
There has been much talk recently of "nature-writing". It's a problematic term because "nature" itself is impossible to define, and also because our best "nature writers" are equally concerned with culture, and the fact that we live immured in both. We exist and communicate within nature and culture – neither offers escape from the other.
Tim Dee is a cultural man: a BBC radio producer who commissions and produces poetry programmes. He is also an expert birdwatcher and has introduced several British writers to birdwatching, myself included. An outing with him is a lesson in listening; several poets owe what listening skills we have to Dee's tuition.
It was inevitable then, that a man deeply concerned with birds and their habitats, with poetry, music and literature, voice and communication, should write his own books, especially when "new nature writing" became a small phenomenon. Dee's first book, The Running Sky – an autobiography of a birder – appeared when he was almost 50. His second, Four Fields, meditates on habitats around the world that Dee has known and to which he has made repeated visits over the years. There will be environmentalists aghast at the air miles clocked up, because the four fields of study are in Montana, central Africa, Ukraine, and the Cambridgeshire Fens – Dee's home patch.
I didn't open the book with much enthusiasm. Fields, at least in this country, seem to be semi-industrialised areas of scant attraction for wildlife or anyone else. But Dee's interest in fields is more imaginative. The term "field" is generously defined to include fields of view and battlefields, natural grasslands, agricultural wastelands and exclusion zones. He says "fields offer the most articulate description and vivid enactment of our life here on earth, of how we live both within the grain of the world and against it". They are "the greatest land art on the globe". In short, Dee likes fields. "In their ubiquity and in their endless difference they are places of continuity and security and also of risk and transformation." This last point is important, and one wilfully ignored by those who call nature writing "escapist". Nowadays in "nature" or "the environment" we are far from consoled. It's in nature we find the most frightening changes. The more alert nature-writers, like Dee, are energised by that truth.
Four Fields is a travel book, a naturalist's journal and a cultural examination that returns home every season to the author's local patch. Dee is a Fen-lander by adoption, having arrived in Cambridgeshire as a student. He was aware of prejudice against the locals, but couldn't embrace all of it. "I knew the people of the Fens couldn't have webbed feet – I was a birdwatcher and strong on my ducks." The Fens, he thought then, were "surrendered and banal, flat farmed and drained". But he learned to look closer, drawn in by the birds. He is indeed strong on ducks, but also on the three-way push and shove between humans, water and land. He offers a lyrical natural and seasonal history of the Fens, a landscape he calls "unfinished". It's "a place where the landscape is thin but the weather wide". Although the Fens have suffered greatly from human intervention it's still possible to encounter "800 fieldfares spread on the threadbare flint-olive winter turf".
His first foreign field is in Zambia "because much of Africa still farms and feeds itself as it has for thousands of years". Here, the idea of "field" is extended to include natural grassland, and Dee soon follows his naturalist's nose to the Masai Mara, which is "a grassed universe, Fen-flat, a pre-farm field". He says "grass is both the world's body and its gesture". His writing about the birds and animals of the Mara is intense and visual, and makes you realise how ineffective TV pictures can be. On the field of the Mara there are countless living animals, wildebeest mostly, but there are also the dead. "For every standing animal, there was a shadow at its hooves, a skeleton, a skull, a mummified body, brown bags of bones, old overcoats shed in the heat."
However, the living outnumber the corpses. Describing the approach of 50,000 wildebeest, he writes: "the first animals flushed yellow-throated longclaws that flew up from the grass and tried to settle again but could find no space to land between the wildebeest. I couldn't see where the herd ended. The horizon was made of animals." It is typical of Dee to notice the birds disturbed by the vastly bigger animals – and to identify them.
From African natural grassland he takes us – via the Fens – to North America. The field Dee studies in Montana was once prairie, but almost all the prairie has gone. In old grass valleys, 700 species of plant have been counted; in modern afalfa fields, one. In a fine example of human activity meeting nature with unexpected results, the Little Bighorn battlefield, now a memorial site, is an unintended grassland reserve. Its 700 acres have never been ploughed, but were fertilised by guts and bones and mutilated bodies. The Little Bighorn site lies in the Crow Reservation, and, alert to people as he is to birds and animals, Dee notes the pathos of the Native American peoples. They inhabit "a permanent day of the dead", in "a stopped place for a stopped people". Having made two visits 15 years apart, Dee reports that nothing has changed for them, only that the drunks at the liquor store may be the children of those he witnessed last time round.
The fourth field is the most sinister of all. In a chapter entitled "Swallow", he describes trips into the exclusion zone at Chernobyl and the consequences of the disaster on non-human life. Dee travelled with two biologists collecting grasshoppers and plants, and working especially with swallows, those symbols of summer freedom obliged by instinct to return and breed in a place where "every living thing is more or less ill". The swallows born since the disaster have tumours and twisted tail feathers. There are birds whose beaks can't close, or which have eyes clouded with cataracts. Dee wore a protective suit while visiting the zone. He writes: "It was ineffably strange: to be in a calm clearing that could kill you, where soil is dangerous, where the air might violate you … where dust is lord of everything's future."
Four Fields is an enthralling and unexpected book – or four short books – about what we have made of the natural world. The language itself is rich and loamy. There is evidence of much thought here, as well as a naturalist's profound observation. It is proof that really, there is no such thing as "nature writing" – Dee gives us the wide world and everything in it, including ourselves and all our works. - Kathleen Jamie
As a boy, the great 19th-century naturalist writer Richard Jefferies would walk up Liddington Hill above Swindon: "Moving up the sweet, short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire." There he would lie on the grass thinking of all those humans and animals who might have been buried beneath it and listen to the skylarks, their song "like a waterfall in the sky".
Tim Dee's other writings:
- Essay for Caught by the River on common names in nature
- Review for The Guardian of John Lewis-Stempel's Meadowland
- Review for The Observer of Richard Kerridge's Cold Blood
- Diary for the London Review of Books on Derek Walcott in St Lucia
- Essay for The Clearing about a winter in the 1980s in Budapest
- Article on nature writing in The National, United Arab Emirates
- Column in Caught by the River’s 'Antidotes to Indifference'
- Review of Walking Home by Simon Armitage and Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou in The Observer
- Obituary of Peter Reading in The Guardian and Caught by the River
- Review of Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead in The Observer
- Review of Birds Brittanica by Mark Cocker in The Guardian
- Diary in the London Review of Books
- Column in Caught by the River’s 2011 'Shadows and Reflections'
- Column in Caught by the River’s 2012 'Shadows and Reflections'