Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: March

Tim Dee | 5th March 2020

Tim Dee’s GREENERY is the CBTR Book of the Month. It is published by Jonathan Cape on 26th March. The books subtitle is JOURNEYS IN SPRINGTIME and it supposes there are really only two seasons in the year – Spring and Autumn –  and it is divided into chapters for each month of the spring from December to July.  It begins in South Africa and ends in arctic Norway but keeps on returning to the passage of the season in the British Isles.  The following (slightly revised) extract is about the days that are around us now in early March. 


2 March. I woke to falling snow and then for two hours walked through it on the route I sometimes run to the Sea Walls on the Downs: plunging into slacks and dunes, sinking to my knees in hidden hollows, sliding down a path where flakes had frozen – my familiar green-grassy city-park place turned Sahara-strange. The cutting wind scattered icy studs that pinged off my coat and stung my cheeks. Carrion crows, ordinarily cocky, looked sickly and shadowy, sickly and significant.

But here’s a white wagtail – a surprise early migrant – flown out of the desert itself, a bird last seen by me attending to the meat-flies around the last Sahara crocodiles of Chad, here all trotty and pert and finding something to eat under a dripping car that had skidded to a kerb. Its grey back mimed the monochrome scene; its hurry, here, was as there in Chad: it was as busy on the snow as it had been on the sand, divining all possible life with the twitch of its tail. After I had seen the bird, it seemed that my boot-prints in the slush on my doorstep looked like a map of Africa.

6 March. Atlantic Cornwall is good for the intemperate spring-seeker. You can see ahead there. Along the coast path at Zennor, despite the ice in the sky and a heavy-duty ocean kettling itself on the granite furniture at the shore, I could smell the spring in the marine blow, coming strong and yet softly, sweetly, from offshore. The Western Approaches – I always liked that thought: a compass point making headway, and today, a gift from far out was being brought in on the air – things were looking up; so might you.

Not far from Zennor, further along this always novel shore, I saw my only ever mermaids. I was thirteen and on a summer-holiday hike, walking south along the coast path with my aunt and uncle and cousin Tom. It had been a wet and birdless week. All the morning goodness of spring had drizzled away into an enervated July – the month-long slow afternoon. Fledgling gulls in their dirty pyjamas bleated along the cliff tops and stomped on the beaches. Stonechats were moulting out their brightness. All the gorse fire flames were damped. Rain-water and then salt-water had got into my binocular lenses. Wardens at the youth hostels made us wait outside in the soak until opening time. There was just one (teenage, pustular) consolation when, on the sole sunny day, Tom and I were scanning a pebbly bay from a cliff top, and there, as well as a pair of oystercatchers, were two young women lying naked, half out of the sea on the beach, their legs lost in the surf, their wet breasts like the smooth sea-rounded stones that tumbled at the shore. I had never seen real bosoms in the wild before. We were on the point of making an addition to our notebooks when we noticed, on the far side of the same bay, another presumably otherwise equally disconsolate and steaming birdwatcher, peering down with rapt attention on the same scene. That shook the dream from us, and we picked up our heavy bags and trudged on.

There were no mermaids at Zennor in early March, but the wind through the day brought spring inklings ashore in a sky-sized envelope of soft air. Grey became blue. The sea settled, its swell now the swing of the weather from further west, with its greenish tumble on the rocks carrying kinder messages from far out. I could see gannets electing to move onshore with the wind rather than to fly along the coast. And in the same mild bumps of air I watched, on my landward side, a skylark rise from a field edge and sing the opening purling notes of its warm spring song as it climbed above me. 

It wasn’t spring yet, but the gannet and the skylark could see further from where they were than I could on the cliff path. Edward Thomas, in his poem ‘Thaw’, looked at rooks high up and busy in their rookery in March, and thought them able to see ‘what we below could not see, winter pass’. In Cornwall, the skylark and the gannets were rooking too.

M32, M4, M5, M42, M6, A14
15 March. A four-hour motorway drive from Bristol to the Fens with, at the roadside, forty active rookeries. Old nests pull the birds back to where they had lived – hatched, perhaps – last year. The birds’ past life still acts upon them – the nests retain a sticky power. Only for a month or so after the young fledge do the birds turn away from them. Through the autumn they visit every day, in the mornings on their way from their overnight roosts and on their way back to their dormitories in the evening. From around midwinter they are even more attentive. A good portion of the short day is spent back in their old house. Their nests are significant: to see the birds sitting alongside their former home (we assume it was theirs) suggests the sticks have meaning.

I tried to take in each rookery as I hurried by below. Almost every nest had one rook next to it. Sometimes I saw a visitor to a sickbed. Sometimes the rook seemed to be sitting next to its own headache. Sometimes I saw a black bird warming itself at a black bonfire. Sometimes the bare tree looked like a cage with each of its avian occupants tethered to a heavy ball. The nests are needy, that seems sure, and the rooks must attend.

I do this counting on every long solo drive in the early spring. I note the rookeries I pass and estimate the nests in each. They get me by. I count other traffic and other trafficking at other times of the year. By them all I augur. Certain trucks mean well: if I see any labelled Knights of Old the day is likely to be good; Hungarocamions improve it further (though these are increasingly rare); to pass The Shore Porters’ Association, 1 Baltic Place, Aberdeen, is still better news; twice in forty years motoring up and down the M5, I have seen the Western Combine pigeon transporter – nothing better intimating home and homing has ever crossed my path.

There are occasions on most motorway drives when you come to and realise that you are alone in a run of the road. Much lies behind you, much ahead, all the cars and trucks of everywhere, but for a while, a thousand metres, you travel on your own, owning the road, having slipped between everyone else and found some space for one minute or so. You are held, in time, and you feel it. Unbidden comes the thought that if you could keep things like this you would, allowing everything to move as it must and travelling yourself with it, as you ought, but able to go with the flow, unencumbered and in a stream of something that feels safe. Never catching up – never being caught. Like birds in a flock. At moments like this you notice time as otherwise dangerous, as otherwise remorseless, the wrecking ball, the everlasting bonfire. And you notice this also because you know – even as you become aware of it – that you will not be able to hold on to the sensation that you are now enjoying of a serene fall, unbruised and elastic. Those gaps ahead of you and behind you are not yours to own or master. Even now you are gaining on the cars in front while others are hurrying on you from behind. But just for a few moments more, the passage of time and your passage through it flood your mind.

When the rooks are hidden by spring leaves, I do hay lorries. I do straw lorries later, as they come out of the granary of the east to bed down the cattle of the west. I do dead animals all through the year. Owls, badgers, deer, pheasants. In the autumn, until the rooks begin again, I do the linear orchards of roadside apple trees, carrying and dropping their coralline fruit, the late golden suns that constellate the roadway cuttings and embankments of boring old England.

I first learned about vernalisation and the apple’s need for winter from Barrie Juniper. We were working together on Jonathan Davidson’s radio drama Miss Balcombe’s Orchard (a time-travel piece, like many of the radio plays I produced). We recorded the play in an orchard in Oxford that Barrie looked after. He knows his apples. One of his books (written with David Mabberley) is The Story of the Apple. He is a botanist and a fruit historian as well as an orchard man. I think of him as an apple-god. We cast him in the play half as himself and half as a fruity species of dryad who spoke apple truths from among blossoming branches.

I had met Barrie in 2007, at a memorial service for the writer Roger Deakin. He stood up at one point at Deakin’s Walnut Tree Farm in Suffolk and made an impromptu poetic intervention, reciting from memory William Cory’s 1858 adaptation of Callimachus’ ancient elegy, ‘Heraclitus’. The poem puts a single human death in the company of nightingales and the endless go-around of life. Who, I wondered, would make such a stand? I spoke to Barrie and discovered that he got to know Roger because they had spoken of apples. He talked apples to me too. I asked about golden boughs – could the magic tree have been an apple-loaded branch? I asked about Atalanta, who was stopped in her tracks by three golden apples (‘Was it so strange, the way things are flung out at us, like the apples of Atalanta perhaps, once we have begun a certain onrush?’ – Eudora Welty, in her story ‘Music from Spain’). I asked him what he thought of the apple in the Garden of Eden – if the fruit was ripe when Eve picked it, would that seasonally challenge the idea of the garden as a place of constant spring; could another fruit – a pomegranate – be more Edenic? And I asked him about the apple trees of motorway verges, told him of my autumn counts, and enquired what had happened to make these runaway orchards. He said – and he spoke as mischievously as a dryad but as believably too – that motorists and truck-drivers buy apples in service stations, eat them (‘The pome, that which is eaten,’ Barrie said, ‘is essentially a womb’) and toss the core (the leftover flower of the apple tree) from their windows, sending it spinning across the hard shoulder towards softer verges where it rots. Seeds can only germinate that have separated from the core (‘The placental tissue of the apple core contains germination inhibitors’). Germination also requires cool temperatures. Motorway apple seedlings sprout because the fruit, having been shipped and stored in chilled containers, is then kept refrigerated in service-station cafeterias and food-halls, and the combined cooling is sufficient to mimic the prolonged chill of winter that apple trees in their wild or cultivated state need to germinate and grow. Their winter memory gives the apple the ability to flower; anticipating spring allows it to happen – that is vernalisation.

Tubney Fen
17 March. At Tubney Fen I flushed a skylark from a straggly grass field. It let out a shivery call as it rose. After a moment it seemed to rewind this or swallow it back, breathing in what it had breathed out; its song began then, spooling on from those first gargled notes. The singing made the lark’s body shake as if animated by its own music, its open beak was busy, its wings bowed and trembling. Another skylark rose, prompted by the first, and as it broke into song, I saw a chalky dab of shit fall beneath it back down to the field where I was walking.

Then a crane called: one brass blast, stretched and bent, as if from an old foghorn on the fen. It could have been the sound of the air itself being hurt, the sky cracking. The bird was flying through the mist half a kilometre away. It called again. Cranes are huge in flight, looking improbable and vulnerable. Their long thin neck extends out in front and ripples uneasily, as if being worked like a rope by the oncoming air. Their long legs trail behind them, stick-thin and snappable, and always held just below the horizontal, as if at any moment they might need to step down from the sky. And their wings in flight, though massive grey oblongs, look worn out and inadequate, they flap like a dusty carpet being beaten. A cold grey thrum was put into the day as the bird hauled itself past. As it went, it turned its head to take in where I was in the field, the big open pasture, where perhaps it had slept the night before. I could see it seeing me. 

I went back to Burwell Fen the same evening and bumped into the crane again. It was one of a pair I saw mating on a reedy island in the middle of the sodden fen. One bird climbed on the back of another. It did so with effort and with care, a slow-motion opening and closing of barn-door wings and gentle mountaineering of long legs. The two stayed in congress for only a moment. It happened so fast I didn’t even have time to feel like a voyeur. There was a rapid, less decorous dismounting and both birds immediately resumed their feeding, jabbing their Stone Age bills at the base of the reed stems after frogs or water beetles. It was hard to believe that they had made an egg.


Greenery is available to preorder here, priced 18.99.

Join us in Bristol for the launch of the book on Friday 3 April, with readings and conversations from Tim, Will Burns, Luci Gorell Barnes, Alexandra Harris and Michael Malay, plus artwork by the late Greg Poole. More information and tickets (£10) available here.