Caught by the River


26th March 2020

Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee, published today, is our Book of the Month for March, and recounts how Tim tries to travel with the season and its migratory birds, making remarkable journeys to keep in step with the very best days of the year. Lucy Jones reviews.

Tim Dee is a springophile and his latest book Greenery is a hymn to the jouissance of the green fuse: “buds, blossom, songs, nests and eggs”. But it is also about what comes before and after spring, which is part of the reason why the season is so good.  

In the early pages, he realises, while considering the barn swallows in the Cape of Good Hope who will move north through Europe, that Spring moves north, too, at about walking pace. He sets out on a journey to “surf the green wave”, finding as much of the ‘Earth on holiday’, as Rilke puts it, or the ‘world’s morning’ (D. H. Lawrence) as possible.

This takes him, and us, across the globe, over the years of his birdwatching life, to Ethiopia, Heligoland, Sicily, Chad, Norway, Denmark, Hungary, Bristol alongside the writing of other spring-fanciers – Keats, Coleridge, Shakespeare – and intriguing rumbles of myth, lore and prehistory. It is a rich and satisfying stew. In one paragraph alone he ranges from José Ortega y Gasset to Albert Einstein, to Dicknson to Nadine Gordimer. 

His travels also take him deep into the heart of human experience. He roots the power of Spring in the stinging tragedy of human existence: that what will live will one day die. He talks movingly of his older two boys and towards the end of the book we learn that his partner Claire is pregnant with his now baby son. He looks existentialism baldly in the face, putting words to the quiet horror many parents feel: “when we make life we make a death: it can only be so.”

Time is a key character in Greenery. “Spring means more to me with every year that passes and takes me deeper into my own autumn, ” he tells us. It gives an urgency to his work, which is made all the more moving when he tells us about his Parkinson’s diagnosis. But the rising and the emergence makes the facts of life more bearable: “Spring is about coming around to dying as much as about the birth of the new.”

The text is crammed with fascinating, horizon-expanding, life-enhancing tidbits of knowledge from a person who has spent years watching, looking, learning. The detail on migratory birds’ route-making and stop-over fidelity is particularly wonderful. Did you know that many migrant birds may swap one tree in, say, Ethiopia, for another in Norway? Very likely. Or that a reindeer’s antlers can grow one centimetre a day? Or that reindeer can see ultraviolet light, so electricity cables appear to ‘crackle and spit fire’?

The detail throughout the book is impressive. There is such care in describing the song of the male swallow, for example, and how one particular note at the end of the male’s song is longer in males with high levels of testosterone. ‘The bird sings its physiological status’. Incredible. Reading Greenery feels like spending time with a friend who could tell you cool stuff about nature for days.

I will take many lessons from Greenery. First, from Dee’s mother, who gave the book its name and would call for some greenery for the table at Christmas for the “least green time.”

I will from now on “have more spring” by, as he does, declaring winter over and spring to begin on December 21st. In early May, I will remember that the dawn chorus moves around the northern hemisphere at about 1,300 kilometres over hour: “It is always dawn somewhere.” 

Of course, as Dee fans will expect, there is blissful poetry in his prose. Crows in bare trees look like ‘black lamps in the grey air.’ The petals of a purple crocus play ‘like the hand of a broken clock’. Meconium is the ‘inner soil that a new-born baby expels’. He sees a ‘knife-throw of swifts’. Dee is, as he always has been, a master noticer. He entreats us to look carefully, look closely, something we could all do more of. 

Greenery is a portal into a deeper understanding of spring and a richer appreciation of the natural world. It is about death, life, love, planetary time: the dynamics of life on planet earth: “We all, more or less, must be vernalised – and go through dark times in order to be born into light.”

And he describes with great love and scholarship – and years of expertise – why many are drawn to Spring and the rest of nature: “I have shared time with birds in order to feel at home in time passing.” 


Greenery is out now and available here in our shop, priced £18.99. For the wellbeing of its staff, our shop platform, state51, has closed its warehouse until further notice, but is still accepting orders, which will be fulfilled once everything is operational again. Your support at this uncertain time would be most appreciated. Alternatively, if you would like to receive a copy of the book more urgently, please contact your local bookshop and investigate their purchase and delivery options – although closed in person, many of these small businesses are finding innovative ways to take and fulfil orders, and they too will be most appreciative of your custom.

Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild was our Book of the Month for February. You can read an extract here, and Jessica J. Lee’s review of the book here. It is also available in our shop (£20), or via your local bookshop.