Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Tim Dee

Tim Dee | 7th January 2019

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends consider the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. As we begin the new year, Tim Dee looks back on 2018:

Microloma sagittatum, Tankwa Karoo National Park (photo: Claire Spottiswoode)

One recent weekend: a funeral, a wedding, and a birthday.  The rest of the year: slipping and sliding between these and other stations of the cross.

There is no going back.  I am greyer, deafer and slower; though happily less obviously sick than I was last year.  I have managed, after months on the sofa, a little running.  This year my circuits were enlightened in the Fens by a woman fellating a man on a verge of a field where a crane (a new local breeding bird) stalked the stubble; in Bristol by men working their Grindr by the Sea Walls where an adult peregrine was teaching its young to hunt above the Avon Gorge; in Cape Town by a pair of clawless otters walking out of the Atlantic and passing wrecked iron and wooden ships and a stranded, deliquescing humpback whale.

What is the language using us for, asked W.S. Graham?  I read some of him (letters and poems) in Cornwall and of the home-maker/novelist D.H. Lawrence and of the glider-pilot/painter Peter Lanyon who also used the same North Cornwall south-west coastline as a runway of sorts.

Another runaway, Dexter Petley – an embodiment of everything that is good on earth – wrote online about trees at The Clearing.  That was matchless.

Other books fell in line, as they will, and spoke to (and for) me:

Zaffar Kunial’s ‘Empty Words’ from Us:

Boc. Boc, says my son. /  A bark up the right tree … ‘Book’ / ‘beech’ were once bound.  One.

Mark Cocker’s Our Place:

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote of Amerindians that they found birds not only good to eat but also good to think with.  The same principle should be extended to include all nature and all peoples.

Holly Corfield Carr’s Subsong:

I have listened online to a juvenile jay singing to itself.  A series of private, distracted clicks, very closed and close.


Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silver Shoals:

The male salmon stood out by a mile: by mid-winter they had morphed from sea-silver to shoe-leather brown, intensely peppered with crimson-redd spots, and they glowed like drowned blowtorches.  As they rode the currents above the red and from time to time glided up to the glassy surface, it was possible to see their kyped jaws, like a Tudor codpiece, and the fleshy adipose fin just ahead of the tail, swollen into a flag of vigorous maleness.

Helen Jukes’s A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings:

A honeybee will make around one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her whole lifetime.  If you were to cut a piece of string equivalent to the combined flight distance made by foragers for just one jar of honey, it would reach almost one and half times around the world.

Tim Pears’s The Redeemed:

“Sparrows?” Lottie asked.  “Have you noticed,” Leo said, “how they peck oats from out of horses’ dung?  Undigested oats.  With fewer horses there’ll be fewer sparrows, for sure.  All things is connected.”

Sean Borodale’s Asylum:

But this is not England, under England.

Steve Elys’ Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah – The Song of the Willow Tit:

Everything after the fact: “that wood in the field off the Third Pond path to Clayton, just down from the Bomdrop; where we found the whitethroat’s; where Wildey shot that owl; you know – where we sneaked up on Dobber shagging Gail in the bushes.”

Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice quoting Constance Okollet of Osukuru, Uganda:

“I learned that overpollution from developed countries had caused real damage to the climate.  I felt bad because I knew that the people in developed countries are our friends.  We are the same people; we have the same blood.  But these people were enjoying their life while we were suffering.  I wanted to know why they were doing this to us.  I wanted to know whether the people in developed countries could reduce their emissions so we could have our normal seasons back.”

Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice in Greenland:

No door in Upernarvik has a lock.  On a small island it would not do to imply that your neighbour is a thief.  And since no one wants to be thought to be doing something secretive, people are free to come and go into each other’s houses at any time.  But not me, Grethe warns.   “You have to wait until the first time you’re invited, only then it’s okay.”  After a pause she adds, “You should come to us for dinner tonight.  We have some seal.”

William Atkins’ The Immeasurable World:

I drew some water from the drum and dragged a chair into the shadow of the cabin, and soaked a scarf and wrapped it round my head and neck.  From the end of a rafter a lizard watched me.  I stood up, naked apart from my boots and the scarf, and sang to him:

Folks in a town that was quite remote heard,


Lusty and clear from the goatherd’s throat heard,


It was the closest I could get to psalmody…

Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems:

The fish thrashing on the hook that happened to it. / Well, of course: who wants to be born?

Michael Hofmann’s ‘The Years’ from One Lark, One Horse:

Nothing required an account of me / And still I didn’t give one. / I might have been a virtual casualty, / A late victim of the Millennium Bug. / No spontaneity, no insubordination, / Not even any spare capacity.


Ferraria crispa, Table Mountain (photo: Claire Spottiswoode)

I went to the Ethiopian Rift Valley and saw – just moments apart – the eastern and western races of the redstart, my bird favourite, gearing up to go north. I went to Ruaha in Tanzania and was guided by a honeyguide.  I went to see Seamus Heaney’s grave in Bellaghy.  I went with Richard Long to collect a bucket of Avon mud.  I went many times to Horner Woods on the edge of Exmoor looking for the spring.  I went to Yarmouth old cemetery once looking for the autumn.  I went to the Western Cape of South Africa to look at spring flowers.

I’m looking forward to reading new essays from Kathleen Jamie, a new novel from Tessa Hadley, another from Patrick McGuinness, Nicholas Crane’s You are Here, Carlo Rovelli on time, David Quammen on horizontal gene transfer, Tim Flannery’s Europe: A Natural History, Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses, Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body, and the boss’s Underland.

I listened, as I have before, to old stuff: Toumani Diabate on kora, Vidar Lande and Nils Okland on Hardanger fiddle, Diblo on guitar, Captain Beefheart on Big-eyed Beans from Venus, Kalyi Jag on rolled oral improvisations, Bartok and Shostakovich on strings, Peter Scott on duck-call, redstarts on xeno-canto.  Many times I needed to hear Kathleen Ferrier singing ewig/forever at the end of her account of Mahler’s Song of the Earth.

In 2018, TV died for me and I only saw one film of note: The Ancient Forest, a Lithuanian wildlife documentary I wrote about here.  The Arcadia film was a good spur to thought.  I’ll give the screens another go next year when I have finished my next book.  Until then, eyes down.


Earlier this autumn, I came away from my flat in Bristol, after a morning writing about Eden, to buy bread and to walk to the railway station en route to see my parents.  On the street, a smiling young man, holding a fist of leaflets like a bunch of wilting flowers, said to me: If you could ask one question of God, what would it be?  My answer came immediately: Isn’t it time you gave up on us?  Walking on, I realised I should have added: Shift your allegiances, sir, the redstart and the honeyguide are unfallen still; go to them and learn how to live.

Wurmbea stricta, Nieuwoudtville (photo: Claire Spottiswoode)


Ground Work, an anthology of new writing on place edited by Tim Dee, was published this year, as was his book on gulls and rubbish and people, Landfill.  CBTR has been very kind to both and to him and he is grateful.  If he hits his deadline, a book about the spring will be published by Jonathan Cape in 2020.

Tim will be one of the speakers at Caught by the River Calder, taking place at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on Saturday 30 March. More info/tickets here.