By Tim Dee
Joanthan Cape, 288pp, hardback
Review by Melissa Harrison
‘Four Fields… tells the story of four fields spread around the world – the flora and fauna contained within them and their natural and human histories’. Thus reads the blurb for Tim Dee’s first book since The Running Sky: a Bird-Watching Life, and so it does – in the same way Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways could be called a book about paths. Dee’s book is very different from Macfarlane’s, being both less personal and less allusive, but both move from the sensuously close-focused to the metaphysical in a way that can leave you breathless.
Dee’s ‘home field’ – the one the book starts with and keeps coming back to, like the swallows that “cast their nets” overhead – is a fen in Cambridgeshire, and with each return it is given another layer of meaning like the peat the fens themselves lay down. It accumulates; the history he dredges out of its past and the precision of his lovely descriptions coming together to create a pointillist portrait, both exact and somehow diffuse.
And Dee’s ability to notice, as those who have read The Running Sky will know, is astonishing; he can spend a whole page describing the feeding behaviour of a flock of snipe, down to the way their facial muscles flinch at the chill water, or the way thistledown seeds loosen, lift and drift across the fen, without losing the reader’s attention – no mean feat. Even his briefer sketches are little masterpieces, words pressed into new shapes in the pursuit of a vision at once precise and impressionistic: “The next day, in the inch of spring sun, the plough-pressed ridges of turned soil along the bare fields shone like fish-scale, and the water in the lodes rainbowed with clay oils: some marrow was moving again through the buttery land beneath the peat.”
So far, so British nature writing – albeit of the highest order. But then Dee takes a great risk, moving us from a domestic landscape we can picture and are invested in to a field in Zambia, which could hardly seem more foreign. As a sweetener he gives us a honeyguide, a remarkable bird that has learned to seek out humans when it has found a bee’s hive, leading them to it with a particular call. Dee’s description of the long comb extracted from a tree cavity, “twisting like amber snakeskin… a dripping tongue of sweetness”, the “heavy drag of honey” through his fingers and the hungry bird “watching us doing its bidding” is beguiling and unforgettable.
As the book moves to the Mara in southern Kenya and its vast wildebeest herds its structure begins to shimmer and expand, and it becomes clear that this is not just the story of four fields; that it is, in fact, about grass and our relationship to it, about farming and cultivation and what those things bring us and cost, about the meaning of plains and prairies and the way in which grasslands of all kinds are defined by us and define us in turn. “The grass which covers everything is not just superficial – it becomes the Earth as well as growing from it, for the movement and shape of the land rhymes with the movement and shape of its outgrowth; the grass is both the world’s body and its gesture”. Dee’s vision may at times border on the mystical, but his rhythmic, incantatory prose has a McCarthy-esque weight that drives his deeper meaning home.
In America Dee explores South Dakota and Montana, where the battlefield at Little Bighorn both holds and obscures human history and has become fertile ground for myths as well as grass. Bringing John Clare’s Swordy Well into proximity with Custer and his foreign, “fenced-out” army is startling and enlightening, but again it is the physical details that bring the place into focus. After visiting the battlefield, says Dee, “I rinsed my face at the visitor centre [and] three stowaway grasshopper legs swirled into the sink… the fold of their joints was the same angle as the crook in the grass stems they had lived among”.
Dee meets grasshoppers again in the exclusion zone at Chernobyl where he traps them as part of a project measuring the effect of radiation on the creatures living there. There are swallows, too, but many are sick with tumours and deformities and here they gather in trees rather than on telephone wires: in the abandoned villages and beside the roads some poles remain, but the wires themselves are long gone and they shake from the trees “like dead leaves” at his approach.
His account of the Zone, nearly 30 years on, is subtly terrifying. The place is both lush and dead, verdant and corrupted, and he conjures this paradox in darkly patterning metaphors and images. When, amid the grass, he approaches the central truth of Chernobyl it is appropriately devastating: “Rot was killed, decay arrested and the dead kept immutably dead. There were no friendly worms. Death, needing no colleagues, moved as an absolute master through these woods and fields, armed solely with itself, raining death beyond death down over the trees and grass, keeping everything dead.”
And yet this is a book about life. Fields are, for Dee, “the most articulate description and vivid enactment of our life here on earth” – although, as he adds, “we reap what we sow”. As the book makes its final return to the fens and unearths more of their rich history, it fractures into a series of sketches, memories, brief essays and glimpsed visions that telescope powerfully through time towards the book’s moving and personal close: “Grass seeds and broken stems and leaves get stuck in the lining of my boots on almost every crossing of a field… I shake them out, my coup de grace, sowing on to my little back lawn the seeds from half a mile away and from thousands of miles away, reed flags and sedge-heads, Bushmen’s and steppe-feather, prairie and timothy. My days.”
Tim will be appearing on the Caught by the River / Faber Social Estuary stage at Festival No 6 on Sunday 15 September.