Caught by the River


19th May 2015

9781408856567 (1)

Cuckoo by Nick Davies
Bloomsbury, 320 pages, hardback. Out now

A review (of sorts) by Tim Dee
Illustrations by James McCallum

We are coming to this superb book somewhat late on Caught by the River. Cuckoo has already been extremely enthusiastically reviewed. It fully deserves the accolades. The book is illustrated with field drawings by James McCallum. These are also wonderful – it is especially thrilling to find that some were made less than a year ago but are already printed. Most of the birds they show will still be alive today. They perfectly match what is described but also, in their deeply knowing simplicity, mimic the way things are told in the book too. Nick Davies has also spoken on BBC Radio 4 with great eloquence and beautiful modesty about his research work (Start the Week 4th May 2015).

Late as we might be, the birds, so brilliantly captured on the page, are doing their stuff right here and right now. This morning I heard one calling on the fen where the book is set. The males’ cuckooing (as it always does for me) opened deep shafts in time and place. The belling call seems to circle the scene, ‘the whole landscape flushes on a sudden at the sound’, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it; and, at the same time, something comes back to you of the mood summoned by all the previous cuckoos you’ve heard – something that shuttles between sweet music, deception, and death.

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The first cuckoo is one thing, the calling card of spring, but the full cuckoo is something other altogether. Cuckoo begins with ancient mysteries and ends with modern anxieties and takes in Aristotle and Edgar Chance, lyrical poets and obsessive eggmen, dummy clutches and stuffed specimens, but mostly it concerns the life history of the bird, and what one man has seen, and wondered of it, over thirty years of walking the lines of reeds at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. I didn’t see him this morning under the calling cuckoo, but Nick Davies may well have been along the lodes at Wicken too, with his notebook and his hazel wand that he uses to part the reeds to look at reed warblers’ nests: a gentle wizard at work, writing down another creature’s spells. If that sounds a little too sweet, a modern version of pastoral, we should remember that there is, as always with cuckoos, war and death at the heart of life. Either the reed warbler detects the imposter egg in its nest and rejects it or the cuckoo chick hatches and kills all of the reed warbler’s eggs or chicks.

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Why this has evolved and how it is continuing to evolve is what Cuckoo is about: the bird’s own history and our entanglement with it, its life investigated, facts pulled from the weave of the world, the growth of human understanding about hosts and parasites, the ways in which cuckoos have passed through various brilliant minds and set them to work, the mysteries still awaiting answers, the fortunes of the bird in evolutionary time and down to our own sickly era.

Cuckoo tells it all with clarity and intelligence, but also with the most engaging passion and excitement. Many reviews say these sorts of things but in this case it is true whilst not saying quite enough. Nick Davies is a scientist (a professor, a Cambridge don, a Fellow of the Royal Society, etc) but he so obviously loves his cuckoos (and their hosts – reed warblers, dunnocks, pied wagtails, etc) that we cannot but love him for telling us about them in the way that he does. We are disarmed (appropriately: much is made here of arms-races) both by his truthfulness and by the truths he has brought towards us by his (and others’) studies. His is an exquisitely lucid book, even transparent – it lets the light in as very few do.

Am I gushing? I should declare that Nick is a friend. My wife is a colleague of his. He supervised her PhD. She has gone on to study cuckoos in southern Africa (and her work features a little in Cuckoo). The birds and their behaviours play a sizeable part in our lives. But, allowing for all this, I still cannot imagine a better book about why living things (those that are not us) should so capture our minds and hearts. Or, to put it another way: evolution is relentless; here we might listen to it singing once more and here, also, begin to learn its song. Or: do you have a behavioural ecologist budding somewhere near you? Get this book to them fast: nothing like it, for ages, has made the case so well for going out and looking hard at life.

Darwin (as Gilbert White had been before him, as well as a host of less experienced observers) was horrified by what he suspected the cuckoo of doing: ‘this strange and odious instinct’ he called it. Nick Davies’ work (and that of colleagues and others in related areas – all generously acknowledged here) begins with these inconvenient truths and takes them on, through field season after field season, testing questions against life and finding answers that beggar the imagination. Nothing we have dreamt of cuckoos could match their reality. The truth discovered (so far – there is always more to learn) is stranger than fiction, deeper, richer, and more interesting.

As I reached its end, I wanted to copy out page after page of Cuckoo to keep its clarities and its brilliant elucidations with me. Clarities that are often about deceptions. Truths that are often about lying. It is troubling in this way too, and yet if I could, I would wear its words or find a way to nest in them somehow. If you have been outside and found things going on out there that moved you and intrigued you, which disturb you as much as delighting you, then this is a book you might live by. For it contains words about how the world works that read like direct transmissions from life. Broadcasts from the fen that might echo over it like a cuckoo’s call. These are words after facts, not the facts themselves, but they are written as close to the facts as might be possible. And to read someone writing on nature, who knows both what he talking about and how to talk about it, can be, as here, immensely beautiful. It is like listening in on somebody as they channel the song of the earth.

There is one more thing to say. The hollow on the cuckoo chick’s naked back neatly cups the blind baby’s unwanted nest-mates (usually still in their eggs) and helps the tiny imposter shift them over the lip of their fleetingly shared nest and towards oblivion down below. Some equivalent force to this – its beautiful if ruthless functionality – spread, I felt, from the book itself. Reading it was to feel chastened or cauterized, burnt even sometimes in its bright clean flame.

These days many of us make nice noises about what nature (and the ruins of nature that we have permitted) means to us. I spend much of my time doing this. Caught by the River delivers a dose most days when it isn’t doing beer. Reading Nick Davies gave me pause – his noises are about what nature means to itself. Scientists aren’t spared egos. They guard their systems – raw or untapped data – as zealously as a reed warbler keeps its eyes open for cuckoos. Yet here is a book that seems to come as close as is yet possible to seeing inside (what I would call) the mind of a cuckoo and doing so by letting us see inside the mind of Nick Davies and by simultaneously making it clear that neither cuckoo nor man are complete masters of what they have up there behind their eyes and between their ears. It is thrillingly like negative capability, what Keats saw in Shakespeare’s characterisation, a willingness to be in various states of fruitful doubt. Birds that live as hosts and parasites have to spend time like this, trying to work out what might be the truth. Scientists might also best succeed by being alive to what they don’t know as much as by explaining what that they have found to be true.

In the last one hundred and fifty years Wicken Fen has been worked over in words as much as in reed- and sedge- and woodland management. It’s a cultural landscape or a man-made place in many ways. Britain’s oldest nature reserve is drying out and should, it has been decided, be preserved as a fen. However, wet or dry, it is also among the country’s most inscribed acres. An extraordinary amount of writing has been made from it.

Scribbling is what fenland molecatchers used to call their targets’ tunnelling that could open a pipe-way through a bank allowing water, supposedly being taken away in a ditch or a dyke or a lode, to flood and drown neighbouring farmland. Wicken remains a wet but scribbled place. Darwin collected beetles from nearby. His pinned specimens are in the Cambridge University Zoology Museum. What ecology might mean was teased out in Wicken in the early years of the last century. Cuckoo repeatedly returns to Darwin’s famous final image in On The Origins of Species of a tangled bank of interacting life while the Godwin plots at Wicken ask questions in the field about how vegetation succession works. At the same time these parcels of ground were being marked out for study, diverse hands wrote a natural history of the fen, a vast encyclopaedia of its various lives, containing hundreds of pages noting liverworts and freshwater sponges. At the same time, again, Eric Ennion, a local village doctor, became one of the greatest British bird artists, thanks to the diaphanous company of the fen’s saturated marsh. Watercolours have rarely been so appropriate. Helen Macdonald, resident just across the Suffolk border and new supernova over all us nature-noters, recently wrote about Wicken in one of her first columns in the ‘New York Times’. She mentioned Darwin’s beetles. I live on the fen edge too and am about to entertain Mark Cocker here. His next book about the remains of nature in Britain may well feature Wicken and, its newly revived neighbour, Burwell Fen. That was a leek field when I first knew it. Thanks to the rewilding imagineers of the National Trust it is now reedy and wet once more. The great early natural scientist, John Ray, a taxonomical genius and one of Nick Davies’ heroes, came botanising round about in the 1600s and knelt to its wet where he tried to find words for the grasses he found. In Four Fields (I scribble, you scribble, he, she, or it, scribbles…) I described his project as being among the best things I have known humans to be capable of:

I can think of nothing more thrilling, nothing that our species has done better, than this benign capture and permanent vivifying of a season, a pathway and a field edge, and its simpling [seeking flowers, especially for medicinal purposes], or its lovable mapping of what might be in front of us. He was there and noticed what was there. And now, being all but there, we see it all…

I would describe Nick Davies, and the effect of his book, in those terms too. His science is real field-working; his passion is articulate; his finger is on a pulse of the world not just at his own wrist; his nature writing is fine, not only because of the beauty of his phrases or the originality of his images, but because it speaks to the real. Nick will be somewhere outdoors in Cambridgeshire today. He’ll be walking slowly along a line of reeds on the fen or sitting quietly in a bushy corner of Cambridge’s Botanical Gardens. Some truths will be on display and because Nick knows what he looking at he will be able to see those truths for what they are.

By contrast, I can only see the truths of nature for what they mean to me. Unless, that is, I look at life via Nick Davies. John Ray didn’t know half of what he saw and some of the cuckoo’s things are still beyond Nick, but in his company, as we are in his book, the world comes towards us astonishingly cleaned. It’s a paradox of science that it shows us its findings, an enlarged world (thereby making less of us), at the very same moment that it must declare our expanding knowledge (thereby making more of us). Knowing enlarges us and shrinks us at the very same time.

I often seem to be making things more complicated in my writing. Adding stuff is what I do. Nuance and subjectivity. I want the dream and the hard matter to step together. But in the light of Cuckoo all my babble and guff seems rather wanton, windy, unnecessary, mere blabber and smoke. Nick Davies says what he knows to be true and he says it in the clearest way he can. This doesn’t stop it tearing our hearts to shreds. Saying what things are like is enough to do that, as Brecht knew. It’s a question of refraction. We nature writers bend the light and make our own shapes from what we see. Nick Davies’ optics are clear.

He has spent more than thirty years working on cuckoos at Wicken. From the other side of the River Cam, there is a story that the novelist Graham Swift saw the fens once only from a train window but recognised in just one short journey that what he saw of an oddly wild but worked-over flatness might give him the perfect ground-source for a book. Waterland was the magnificent result. Unsurrendered, I have called the fens, and it is true that the railway line north of Cambridge to Ely and beyond makes great play in the flat place. The scribbling continues, the novelist and the scientist adding their marks. Much comes from wanting to know. When I first read Waterland more than thirty years ago, I copied pages of it into my notebooks just as I found myself wanting to do last week with Cuckoo. I still remember the passage spoken by a teacher to his class and I thought of it again as how it might be a description of his method when I read Nick Davies’ marvellous book:

Children, be curious. Nothing is worse (I know it) than when curiosity stops. Nothing is more repressive than the repression of curiosity. Curiosity begets love. It weds us to the world. It’s part of our perverse, madcap love for this impossible planet we inhabit. People die when curiosity goes. People have to find out, people have to know.

Nick Davies gave the Royal Society’s 2015 Croonian Lecture on 14th May and spoke on cuckoos, co-evolution and arms races. You can watch the lecture here.

Tim Dee is the author, most recently, of Four Fields. He is writing at the moment on the Spring in Europe and about men who watch gulls on landfill sites. He will be among our guests at Port Eliot festival in August.

Cuckoo, plus Tim’s, Four Fields can be found in the Caught by the River shop. If you enjoyed reading this, as we’re sure you have, be sure to read other writing from Tim in the Caught by the River archive. It doesn’t get much better.