Caught by the River

Tim Dee – The Running Sky

Ceri Levy | 17th June 2010

Tim Dee – The Running Sky. Review by Ceri Levy.

The adage, never judge a book by its cover, is not always true or fair. If I had heeded that warning when I was a kid, I would never have bought T. Rex’s The Slider or Bowie’s Aladdin Sane on my first venture into a record shop. Instead I would probably have become an accountant, lived in Ruislip and ended up in a loveless marriage. But thankfully I bought those albums, discovered a strange new world and, for better or for worse, have become the man I am today. The Running Sky is one of those books I picked up on a similar whim because of the power of the cover photo by Owen Humphreys of Starlings over Gretna Green. And as luck would have it the inside of the book is in keeping with the cover and Tim Dee’s words are as inspiring as either of those first two albums I bought. This last week has seen the release of the paperback version of The Running Sky and it is now deservedly destined for a larger readership.

The Running Sky is a perfect union of writer and the natural world and is amongst the very best of the nature books that have begun appearing in the last few years. For so long nature and all its accoutrements have been considered un-cool, unhip and unreadable by the world at large. But reading habits have been changing thanks to writers like Robert MacFarlane, Mark Cocker, Richard Mabey and now, Tim Dee. The truth is many of us have somehow lost touch with nature and we need our modern writers, thinkers and conservationists to realign and reconnect our vision and hearts upon the great outdoors that permanently surrounds us in our gardens, local parks and the countryside.

At first glance this seems to be a straightforward diary, consisting of a chapter for a different month in one birdwatching year, but each month focuses on events past and present in Tim’s life. It is in turn anecdotal, historical, educational and moving. One moment we are accompanying him on his childhood paper round while searching for peregrines and the next we are watching swallows over Troy in Western Turkey. This is not just a study of one man’s obsession with birds and birdwatching; it is an enlightening and open autobiography of his life and his emotional response to the world surrounding him. He also proves himself to be a great storyteller.

We meet his heroes along the way, including John Buxton and his book The Redstart as well as J.A. Baker and The Peregrine. The Running Sky makes a case for re-discovering these writers but strangely also establishes Dee alongside his heroes of yesteryear and with this book he will have hopefully re-placed them, as well as himself, into the 21st century firmament of nature writing.

But the most beautiful thing about this book is Dee’s writing. With Simon Armitage he compiled The Book of Bird Poetry and when you read The Running Sky it reads like a large, perfectly formed prose poem. He describes events, people, emotions and thoughts in the same eloquent way. Rich sentences drip from each page and at times the book needs to be put down to let the word-woven tapestry sink in properly.

As an illustration, this short passage describes the last moments of song thrush and blackbird song at night, which are then followed by a different song.

“It is very hard not to hear an elegy for the departing day in what they sang, but before the evening became remotely hackneyed (there being no clichés in nature), there was also a magically transfiguring coda that refused to let the music finish and began it all over again, this time in the key of black.”

He continues, stating that, “ the nightjar’s, is hardly a song at all. As I was preparing to leave for my bed, it started chirring behind me and didn’t stop. Night had fallen, it said. Fallen, we say, but the nightjar’s song on the edge of the moor – like the grasshopper warbler’s on the fen and the woodcock’s grunts above it last June – seems to have come up out of the earth and brought the night with it. The sun falls and the nightjar’s chirring rises, like the moon, except this night there wasn’t a moon, only a black vibration from deep inside a bird, like a stream of stout pouring from a tap, switched on to run at full pelt instantaneously, switched off equally abruptly. It goes like an engine, yet it is one of the most pre-industrial sounds you can imagine. Its motor is the underworld of the earth.”

If this is not incentive enough to want more of Tim’s thoughts, descriptions and passion then I would be surprised. His writing itself is the greatest advert to persuade you to go and get a copy, put the kettle on and sit back and discover Tim Dee, for he is writ large upon the pages of The Running Sky.

To listen to the sound of a Nightjar follow this link.

To listen to the sound of a Nightjar follow this link.

The Running Sky, is now out in paperback and on sale in our shop priced £8.50.
Tim will be appearing on the Caught by the River stage at Port Eliot Festival on Saturday July 24th as part of Ceri Levy’s Bird Effect session.