Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – Tim Dee

Tim Dee | 18th December 2014

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings where Caught by the River’s ever-reliable contributors and friends old and new take a look back on the events that have shaped the past twelve months.Today it’s the turn of Tim Dee:

St Lucia, Caribbean. Interviewed Derek Walcott for BBC Radio 4. Green steam from the forest. A sign: Ferry Boat For Sale. The boat: grown over. Hot rain. Green figs and saltfish for lunch on the beach. That night, a sweat-dream sticky with half a memory and itched with mosquito-music: women in China wearing silkworms in a papoose-belt around their stomachs. The tropics: this same feculent helix to the world, its girdled middle. The stuck season with a desultory tide. I overslept and woke late. Too much pink rum on a catamaran under the whump of sun. After that, a flying fish, conjured by its own silver skitter out of the black sea, and, up above my head, a magnificent frigatebird, two dagger tails hanging from an old black dinner jacket, its name cut by the ship’s crew into Creole as ciseau la mer. Blades to travel by.

Recorded and mixed Lavinia Greenlaw’s drama serial, Five Fever Tales, for BBC Radio 4, about the history of malaria, and made in conjunction with the mosquito genome mappers at Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The history of our dance. Reasons to stay north. Mosquito music brilliantly conjured by Jon Nicholls.

A gannet rescued in Shetland with help from the poets Jen Hadfield and Paul Farley. The grounded bird slumped on a beach on Unst, anchored by a necklace of fishing twine, which had already caught and killed a guillemot. The auk’s body was pinned like a dirty medal to the gannet’s breast. I threw my black windcheater over the gannet’s white collapse but still it jabbed at me, so keen to live even in its agony, its blue-rimmed eyes directing its furious beak towards my face with hiss and judder.


A conference on the poetry of Seamus Heaney at Queens University Belfast got a bit wordy and I broke out to visit his childhood haunts. In rain in Bellaghy in I heard the first willow warblers of my year, casting their green threads, and I peered at the flesher’s shop and, just down the road, the poet’s grave, with its still bare soil.


Laugharne, South Wales. Drunk in Brown’s Hotel at a Dylan Thomas festival. Everything tilted: tippling whimbrels on the estuary and, behind the town, rooks so-so above the rookery. Under Dubwood, a tune for the times.

Fair Isle, Shetland. For six days there was no tree taller than my ear. And every bird that wanted a tree was shown to me. Spring migrants had no place to hide. The island is unhedged, its one plantation has five stunted trees. The wind comes from all quarters. I saw a frog orchid so blown that its flower couldn’t leave the shelter of the soil. I heard a marsh warbler sing from a dead Christmas tree, plaiting its tune with the voices of those birds it had lived amongst before it blew in to the island: blue tits and robins in Sweden from its summer grounds, scrub-robins and weavers in Zambia from its winter. At Shirva, Stewart Thomson, in his tenth decade, sat outside his house on a blue pew spinning brown wool from the island’s fleeces. In his garden roses was a western subalpine warbler, less than a year old, just in off the sea and two thousand miles out. One in the roses, I thought, how many more on the seabed?

The same day, I watched a fulmar trying to land on its cliff-ledge, its feet paddling for purchase in the wind chimney at the top of a geo. It took twenty-five attempts. Before that, the cloud had sunk near Sumburgh, and our incoming plane had to go around, as the pilot called it. Stepping from the air to the land is no easier than from the land to the sea.


A BBC Radio 4 interview about John Donne in the college rooms of the wire-walker, novelist and critic Katherine Rundell. Outside in the oily rain, Oxford’s last singing blackbirds of the year, soft ropes at the throat.
On the way home Toumani Diabaté’s sublime kora playing sounded an answer to all the (annually awful) midsummer was throwing (slackly) at us. His latest record (with his son Sidiki) was my favourite of the year. Their tune Lampedusa, a limpid but tight-strung migrant song, the blues played through the sands of the Sahara, has refocused what I want to write next: a book about the spring and the journeys both birds and people make and have made northwards out of Africa.

False Bay, Cape Town, South Africa. False ¬– either because it tricked mariners into thinking it offered good anchorage or was thought the way around and not a cul-de-sac. At first light, from a shallow cave in the cliffs above Muizenberg, black men in black suits stood up and shouted the gospel. Below them, at sea, white men surfed in black suits. There are ways and ways of walking on the water. From a boat, a little further out, I saw the baby-pink grin from the saw-pit mouth of a great white shark. A toothed O. As it broke open the sea, coming into unwanted air, the fish’s dark eye and still-darker pupil scrolled forward, taking in me and the other dry goods put before its aqueous humor – Cape gannets, a Subantarctic skua, a southern giant petrel, and the unfiltered sun. Horizons. Orisons. O-zones. A cage was offered. My wife accepted, I declined.


On the 1st of the month I was busy with the dead at six o’clock in the evening. The University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge has fourteen skins of passenger pigeons shut away in the wooden drawers of its collection. That day I pulled on blue surgical gloves to handle the bodies. We were marking a 100th anniversary to the minute. The death of a single bird called Martha, but also of a species.

The passenger pigeon is famous for being extinct. So are the dodo and the great auk. But, unlike those other two icons of the dead and gone, the pigeon scratches more intimately, more complicatedly, at our hearts and minds. The dodo shuffled off a long time ago and the great auk was a weird bird of remote places. We are implicated in the extinction of all three but the passenger pigeon’s fate is more substantially threaded through our lives and the world we have made and continue to live in. And the fact that the last ever passenger pigeon died one hundred years ago, on 1st September 1914 at 1 pm local time, in a cage in a zoo in Cincinnati, and that, until just a few decades before the species had been the most abundant bird in the whole world ought to shake us awake. That extinction was our work, a modern unmaking, and it can only be good to think about what we have done.

Bunk off before a gig for Caught by the River at the Branchage Festival on Jersey to visit, for the first time, the Durrell Zoo, founded by Gerald, my childhood hero number one. I loved his books and, aged seven and a half, wrote for advice on how best I might become him. Watch the birds in your garden, he said, and I did. There were moments in his magical accounts of animal collecting that I didn’t quite grasp at that age. Every other chapter he would leave the scene to answer, as he put it, the call of nature. In my animist-innocence I thought he was stepping into the jungle to talk back to it, to make some noise that might match its roar. I didn’t realise he was pissing all over it. But at the zoo, which is much less depressing than most, the bald ibises were wonderful and the gorillas delivered everything needed.


The moon on Bonfire Night, high above my home patch at Burwell Fen, had the face of a Watteau pierrot. The next night its wafer visage had melted further and aged like a Daumier judge. Beneath it, that first evening, eight airborne whooper swans and a short-eared owl worked the last of the light, like cleaners in an office block. And on the second, on the other side of the fens, in Stamford, at the New Networks for Nature jamboree, Richard Mabey talked personally, and brilliantly, about the personalities of plants. All journeys towards and away from metaphor to be admitted and permitted. The moon and the swans and the owl and the sedges and docks and grasses beneath them care not a jot for all this but we raise them all into life with our words and I wouldn’t have it otherwise.

While waiting for Richard’s next, my books from a bumper year for nature writing itself into our lives, the not-us speaking back to us: I was sustained by three deep-dug and personal meditations on local landscapes – Patrick McGuinness’s Other People’s Countries (memory’s tricks in deadbeat Belgium); Adam Thorpe’s On Silbury Hill (finding himself written into the mysterious mound); and Mark Cocker’s Claxton (the parish journal of a recording angel). Another waits for me: Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground doing the same or related work in Cornwall.

Madagascar – for the first (and, almost certainly, only) time in my life. I wrote a dull and lifeless book about the island’s remarkable and vivid endemic bird species (all 106 of them) in 1986. I am going, at last, to put that book behind me and, I hope, to see some of the surviving birds.

I’ll write about this and follow up what I wrote in Four Fields: The day in April 1986 that the radio news in Britain announced the Chernobyl disaster – three or four days after the event – I saw my first swallows and also my first swift. The swallows were late and the swift a little early but I hadn’t been doing much birdwatching that spring. Birds had become my business and, then as with the passenger pigeons this year, I had an appointment with the dead. At the British Museum’s bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire, my job was to write a report on the status and distribution of the endemic birds of Madagascar then known. These birds have evolved over millions of years of isolation and are some of the most extraordinary in the world, but the short book I wrote about them is one of the most monochromatic imaginable. Nothing I wrote could revivify the birds. The problem was that the nearest I got to Madagascar or its endemics was walking the narrow and dark corridors of the museum, pulling open cabinets and drawers, spending forty seconds here and there in one sarcophagus after another. Lying there, mostly on their backs, were hundreds of gutted specimens, what scientists call skins, many with a stick driven up through their insides and a dab of cotton wool in their eye places: vangas, ground-rollers, mesites and couas, the bizarre and magically complete avifauna found only on Madagascar but which I knew only as stiff and sorted, eyeless and grounded, and wrapped into themselves like all dead birds, whether under a hedge or in a fridge, on a beach or in a drawer. I took tray after tray to a work-table to decipher the details written on the labels tied to the leg of each bird. These labels are passports, information for the next world, like the cards tied round the necks of evacuee children, or coins placed under the tongues of the dead. They are small, no longer than an inch and a half, and usually written by the person who had collected the bird. To collect a bird means to kill it. That ought to be interesting, the written words ought to allow you to reinflate the moment and the hollow skin that came from it. I stared at the birds as I turned them in my hands, blue couas, sicklebill vangas and scaly ground-rollers; they were beautiful but strange, airy, fading smudges, somehow further away from me at an arm’s length than they ever were before or have been since. A whispered lost language in an alien script. There was nothing to assemble beyond the colourless string, the greying card, and the inky lines recording dates and weights, measurements and localities. Laid out in rows in the trays like sorted bodies after a disaster, the dead awaiting repatriation, I had no way of helping them home. In death and tethered to their facts they were, to me at least, invisible. No news from nowhere.

Tim Dee is the author of Four Fields and The Running Sky. This year he wrote on naming nature and on the passenger pigeon for Caught by the River. He is at work on books about the spring and about men who watch gulls.