Charles Rangeley-Wilson looks over ‘Landfill’ – a book about gulls and the people who watch them, written by Tim Dee, illustrated by Greg Poole, and published by Little Toller.
Tim Dee gave up bird-watching because of gulls. A few years later he took up bird-watching again, because of gulls. Both times these white-walker birds, lumped into one formless genera of chip-stealing, jacket-shitting opportunists by the non-birding proletariat such as me (at least until I read this wonderful book), had tempted Dee with a siren call, like the mead-soaked kittiwake cry of the Seafarer.
First time round a younger Dee had been intimidated into abandoning his binoculars by the creeping suspicion that he’d been on the look-out for quite the wrong bird – ring-billed gulls at Chew Valley Lake – or rather he had been so caught up looking for one remarkable thing he had failed to see the other remarkable thing happening all around him and had thus missed the point of bird-watching entirely. I’m not so sure. If Landfill is Tim Dee’s paean to this ‘wrong bird’ it must surely evoke exactly the point of birdwatching. It is a brilliant, widening gyre of a book, proceeding from gulls outwards to interrogate how humans interact with nature and vice versa.
Three years after this birding “faux-pas” and working in bird conservation, if not bird-watching (there is a difference) the rumour of a Ross’ gull the other side of the country had Tim back in the car, chasing the dragon one more time. Tim found his prize ‘melting like a raspberry-ripple ice cream on a muddy island’ in North Norfolk and thus his obsession was reborn.
By now the short list of British gulls that Tim had grown up with had bifurcated several times over. To the simple 1970’s glam-rock ranks of herring, lesser and greater black-backed, black-headed, common and kittiwake had been added rarer punks and new romantics: the little gull, the glaucous, Iceland, Mediterranean, Sabine’s, ring-billed, Bonaparte’s, Franklin’s, laughing, Ross’ and ivory. And now we have even more: the yellow-legged and Caspian, American herring, Thayer’s, Baltic, Azorean, Viking, Nelson and others besides. It’s not as if there were more gulls, rather that evolving taxonomic analysis had revealed that the tribe was far more varied than anyone had previously allowed for.
Not only had the gull inventory become richly fascinating to the guller, Tim had noticed changes in the gulls themselves, specifically in the way these birds had folded themselves about the activities of man. Throughout history, he writes, gulls have lived in our slipstream, following ‘trawlers, ploughs and dust-carts’. But in recent decades they have moved closer still. Tim’s hometown of Bristol he realised, had become a gull colony. The gulls ‘had made a nutrient rich sea out of the city’s food waste and a marine archipelago out of its unlovely roof-tops.’
While most wildlife has gone the other way, gulls have adapted to, and taken advantage of us and our careless, waste-generating tenure of the planet. In a way they hold up a mirror. They might well teach us something, if only we could learn how to know them properly. Instead, Tim argues, we recoil, as we do with other animals that thrive on our detritus – rats, cockroaches. We deride and despise gulls for this mimicry and adaptability. Ultimately we fear them. Maybe gulls are just too large, dangerous and capable for us to feel at ease in their now too-close company.
It is a proximity that Tim shows us is driven by the way we manage our planet. This richly fascinating book is thus about far more than the already fascinating world of gulls and gullers. It is a meditation on the Anthropocene, on the nature of dust, or waste, or rubbish, on the ways in which we classify and sift things, on recycling through the ages (from rags to dog-shit), on archaeology, and finally on the flux and drift of the natural world.
In this sense, the book may also be something of a requiem. ‘Waste barges’ says Tim ‘with their hungry headaches of gulls no longer float down an open sewer from London to Essex.’ That image might have been my favourite in a book rich with wonderful turns of phrase. It suggests that in cleaning up our planetary act we may well make life a little less opportune for the animals that have come to depend on our mess: a challenge to which this fascinating tribe of birds must once again adapt.
‘The lure of some species never dims,’ says Tim. I can see what he means. Landfill is a passionate and fascinating meditation on the evolving wonder of this extraordinary tribe of birds, and on what that tribe says about us.
Landfill is out now and available here, priced £16.00.
Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s latest book, Silver Shoals: Five Fish That Made Britain, is also out now, published by Chatto & Windus.