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Birds in Words

John Feehan

Four Fields, by Tim Dee, Jonathan Cape, 288 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0224090728

It is four years now since the publication of The Running Sky, which has become a classic of modern nature writing, widely acclaimed for the way it combines precision of observation with lyricism of language; indeed, it is one of the most beautifully written bird books in English.

The observant eye of Tim Dee’s new book, Four Fields, is that of the experienced bird watcher we became acquainted with in The Running Sky. The same observant eye takes in the detail of everything about him, and the encounter is crystallised in wonderful, often startling, metaphor. The concentrated language require that some passages must be read with close attention: you find yourself reading sentences and paragraphs over again, as you might with a sonorous poem (it comes as no surprise to learn that Dee commissions and produces poetry programmes for the BBC). His gift for metaphor spills over into everything else, at its best flowing on and on, the language distilled to a lyrical intensity that elevates it to rank with the finest nature writing of modern times.

Episodes of personal and wider history alternate with passages of observation and description. Ordinary things and experiences are often described with a minimum of defining detail that sketches the scene indelibly on the mind, their significant outlines sparely delineated; and always there are the birds, around which these other encounters with landscape are woven: in the Ukraine bustards and calandra larks, swallows and black grouse, nightjars and demoiselle cranes, black woodpecker, none introduced without a striking metaphor or a string of them.

Sometimes the metaphors are simple and startling. On the fens “Once, on ploughland far from the sea, I saw a storm-wrecked gannet looking like an abandoned wedding dress. Once, in a field after a thunderstorm, I found a swift grounded – a dropped glove.” When a whitethroat arrives from the northern Sahel in spring it is not merely an addition to the local fen avifauna, it comes to define the place: the bird “settled to its summer anchor and the place grew up around it”.

Some of the bird pictures are more extended, for example his delightful description of snipe feeding, the result of eight hours watching them at the end of each afternoon during one autumn week: “Parties of the birds put the wind up themselves sometime and hurried off the pool, their crisp calls as they took flight sounding like an elastoplast being ripped from the skin of the fen. … Coming back to earth, they made curious matador-style movements for a few moments, fanning their tails and laying their beaks to their breasts, as if half remembering their courtships. It was like seeing the end of a dance with the dancers inadvertently continuing their steps after the music has stopped.”

Sometimes there are metaphors that you feel are too outrageous to work, but such is the rich weave of language they do. Here is his unforgettable description of the capercaillie for example: “The male wears Jacobean doublet, ink black with pearl drops, and fanning his broad tail, shying at nothing, and puffing his wobbling throat he throws his head back and up and sings. Sings, like a drunk, what might be an account of fumbling at clothes, undoing a top button in extremis, and of pulling, meanwhile, a final cork. It is all told through neighs and whinnies, stamps and shivers.”

The book is not really an encounter with four “fields” in the familiar sense, rather with four places, very different, each defined by its plants and animals: but by its birds especially. The fen field close to his home in Cambridge anchors the book, and he returns to it in every other chapter. His African field is a run-down farm in Zambia now rapidly returning to woodland; his American field the battlefield at Little Bighorn in Montana, seven hundred acres that have never been ploughed but were fertilised by the bodies of the dead, left on the field to return to the earth. He visits his fourth field in the exclusion zone at Chernobyl in the Ukraine as part of a survey team monitoring the effects of the disaster on plant and animal life.

His visits to these other fields are merely exploratory excursions between seasonal returns to the beloved fen fields he has known since his student days in Cambridge. After our excursion to Africa (following his account of “Winter Fen”) we return to the fen for spring; after our visit to South Dakota and Montana for summer, after Chernobyl for winter. One might want to question whether his foreign settings qualify as fields in any familiar sense. The fields in Zambia and Namibia are more tenuous, and the narrative has only a frail grip on them as fields – as frail indeed as the fields themselves have on the surrounding bush into which they have made so shallow a furrow, soon healed by returning nature.

Parts of the book are more in the nature of disconnected musings: a patchwork of detailed observations, never devoid of music, though at times the beauty of the notes is rather spread out. The alternate chapters away from the fens are on the whole less engaging, a launch pad for periodical excursions: to the Masai Mara reserve in Africa, to Tolstoy’s home at Yasnaya Polyana, the site of Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn in Montana. But they are always thought-provoking and often sobering.

The marvellous metaphors are more sparse in these chapters, but some wonderful lines linger long in the memory: “dark shapes of granite-dusted dassies had emerged from their hiding places to sing their sundown songs like sad hens”; a group of four lions watching the wildebeest emerging from a traumatic river crossing are “standing around like Nazi SS officers”. Less felicitous is the description of the corpse of a hippopotamus caught up in the carnage of wildebeest overcome by a river crossing, “an incidental casualty among the failed swimmers” as “the biggest uncooked sausage ever made”.

The final chapter – “Out Field” – is something of a miscellany: a gathering together of odds and ends, brief pen pictures he could not find a place for in his Four Fields narrative: reflections on sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Henry V’s Falstaff, the last days of Keats, the death and burial of Tolstoy, the last days of Crazy Horse, TH White’s The Goshawk, John Clare, sleeping in barns, reflections on a few lines of Dante, the man who collects and documents whalebones, Chinese and African olive pickers in Florence, each up his own tree: “the woodlarks’ song came down through the little grey-green crowns of the trees with their teams of men perching in them like birds hung in small cages”.

His account in this final chapter of the wildebeest he has just killed takes hold of you in a way that makes it impossible to take your horrified eyes off the dying beast: “Around its anus a ring of ticks clustered like swollen fruits, already big with blood but buried in bliss in the pink opening and drinking more. At the other end of its body, blood had bubbled scarlet and frothy into the wildebeest’s mouth with the final pump of its heart and, strung with slobbery drool, it came dribbling into the sand, pooling darkly as oil will beneath a cracked sump.”

The book would have benefited greatly from a map (or four). And indeed, for the non-birder a copy of Collins’s Birds of the World or some other bird guide would be useful.
4/11/2013

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