They were simple things, but they gave me much pleasure. A flock of starlings twittering as they settle, disperse, and settle again on a row of trees in the cemetery where I’m walking with my dog. A raucous mob of sparrows, stirring up the next street as they trade news, insults, or whatever it is their racket signifies.
Both birds were once so common they were hardly worth remarking upon. Now, with numbers collapsing, both are the RSPB’s red list. In our garden, we hardly ever see either these days, yet some of my strongest childhood memories involve these birds. I loved the sparrows’ noisy gregariousness; they seemed to be everywhere you looked. On Cheshire evenings I’d stand transfixed as great columns of starlings made their way towards their roosts in nearby woods. Which is why those recent sightings filled me with such delight.
Birds. How we do love them. The most popular feature of Springwatch are, I’d guess, the live cams on the birds’ nests. In the park at this time of year, fellow dog-walkers and others share the latest news about the progress of newly-hatched goslings and cygnets. In any season, you might encounter someone peering into a bush, staring up into the branches of a tree, or simply standing listening to the morning’s avian chorus.
Why is this? One answer, I think, is that birds are our neighbours – and the neighbours’ comings and goings are always fascinating. And rather than play music loud like some neighbours, they sing – joyously and mellifluously. Rita caught this in a poem she wrote some time ago that I really like, called ‘From the Window’:
All day I watch the mistle-thrush at work
Building with twigs and grass borne piece by piece
To wedge in its wind-ridden tree-top perch
And endure a season only.
While the long-tailed tit in solitary grace
Is dancing with a feather on a stone
Determined to subdue its air-light line
To the contours of a spider-web spun home.
They will be our neighbours then this year
Whose singing will greet us when we wake at dawn
Stirred by the whispering, barely discernible sound
Of what we have built begin to crumble down.
Then there is the puzzle – and wonder – of migration. For sedentary humans the arrival or departure of migrating birds is a powerful indicator of the year turning as the seasons change. The return of the swifts to the skies above our avenue is an annual moment of joy. But where have they been?
Swifts, especially, birds that spend their whole lives in the air, epitomise another feeling we have when we watch birds – our earthbound envy at their freedom in flight. Townes Van Zandt might have been thinking of swifts when he wrote ‘To Live is to Fly’:
We got the sky to talk about
And the earth to lie upon.
Time is yours to take;
Some sail upon the sea,
Some toil upon the stone.
To live is to fly
Low and high,
Shake the dust off of your wings
And the tears out of your eyes.
Perhaps it’s because I have just finished reading Tim Dee’s miraculous book The Running Sky that these thoughts are uppermost in my mind. His book has been lying around the house for a couple of years, but I picked it up after reading a superb piece on Derek Walcott in the London Review of Books. As producer of the Radio 4 poetry series The Echo Chamber, he’d been to St Lucia with Paul Farley, doubling up as sound recordist). Both men are keen birdwatchers, and Dee’s piece is attentive to the species they were rubbing shoulders with on the island:
It’s odd, in a world fizzing with insects and furious hummingbirds, to hear Walcott speak with such affection about Edward Thomas and John Clare; odd to follow his gaze out to sea and hear him quote Walter de la Mare’s ‘Fare Well’ with its intimations of an English pastoral afterlife. When at the party Glyn Maxwell, or perhaps it was Paul Farley, asked him what it was to be a ‘Caribbean’ poet, he lapsed into silence, the chorus of insects and birds answering on his behalf. The two British poets were putting the questions as I held the microphone and watched the sound levels: the high-pitched calls of hummingbirds set the needles jumping – two species, the green-throated Carib and the Antillean crested, hard to see clearly because they move in a way quite unlike other birds and at such speed.
There were bananaquits too. As we were talking a few came close to us, not much bigger than hummingbirds, black above and yellow below, like birds zipped into bee suits, anxious, constantly on the move, making their thin quit call. We were being audited for our potential sweetness and the birds were disappointed. The bananaquit loves nectar, bowls of sugar on café tables, rotting fruit and anything fermented to around 4-6 per cent alcohol. It will happily come to a bar and sip at an untended beer, returning to tipple throughout the day with no ill effects. (Unlike parrots, which as Aristotle knew, have no head for alcohol: in Australia, where they binge on over-ripe pears, birdwatchers have seen them getting legless, Amy Winehouse-style, faltering on branches and plummeting from trees.) For a long time no one in avian taxonomy knew where to place the bananaquit, and it was bottled nicely in its own family. Recently it has been lumped in with the ungainly ‘pan-American tanager’ cohort. Although it is one of the commonest birds in the towns and villages of St Lucia, away from its syrups it cuts fast through open space and busies itself in the interior of leafy trees, making it tricky to get a good look at. You hear bananaquits almost continually, but their quits are often lost in the general pulse of grackles, crickets, cicadas, hummingbirds, mosquitoes and the wider vegetative buzz.
Tim Dee was born here in Liverpool in 1961, but grew up in Bristol. He has worked as a BBC radio producer for twenty years. The Running Sky was published to great acclaim in 2009, while his latest book, Four Fields, has been gathering positive reviews in the last few weeks.
At first sight, The Running Sky might not seem that special: a memoir of his birdwatching life presented in diary form, with a chapter for a different month in one birdwatching year (though not of any specific year). But this book is more – much more – than a twitcher’s tally (in fact, it’s not that at all). This is not just an account of one man’s love of birds and birdwatching. It is an open and deeply personal memoir in which he recalls significant moments in his life – recollections which spin off into meditations on the natural world which draw upon poetry, music and literature.
Even that doesn’t really do justice this beautiful book. Because it is Dee’s writing that makes this book a transcendent experience: it reads like an extended, perfectly formed prose poem. He is expressive in his descriptions of events and people in his life, and eloquent in expressing emotions and thoughts. Dee’s memories merge into one stream of conciousness as he braids accounts of observing bird behaviour in various places at home and abroad with recollections of his childhood, his parents (who encouraged his early obsession with bird-watching), and adult encounters. He begins in Liverpool, with the first bird he can remember. It was a swallow, and, he writes,’all swallows since have joined that bird appearing above me and flying on ahead’:
The first bird I can remember watching flew through the garden of the house where I was born. It was summer. I had just had my third birthday. I was pulling my red wooden train on its string; the train driver with his blue cap swayed a little, because the grass beneath was bumpy. We were in the back part of the big garden of the house – it was called Acresfield – on the outskirts of Liverpool. I steered carefully because we were going along a thin strip between furrows of turned soil where the old man who lived in the flat above us grew his vegetables. I concentrated to make sure that the train followed me and the driver – he had a column of blue painted wood instead of legs – didn’t wobble too much, topple over and roll from the train.
I heard shouting and I looked towards the noise: far across the wide lawn beyond the vegetable patch, the old man was leaning out of an open window and waving his arms like a bear. A year or so later when I met Mr McGregor in The Tale of Peter Rabbit I knew him already. The man at the window seemed too far away to be real, and though his voice must have been loud and angry, it grew thin and fell towards the lawn. But he was shouting at me and I didn’t like it, It was too much. I had to drop the string, abandon the train and driver, and flee.
I looked up for my mother, who was somewhere in the garden,and headed for the greenhouse at the edge of the vegetable patch. The path bulged around a water butt; I followed it and kept going towards a wide black space of dark, the opening of the garden shed. From behind me, over my head as I moved towards the dark, came a bird. It pulled up into the dusty black rectangle of the open doorway and disappeared inside. It was showing me the way. I followed it.
In the sunshine, the space seemed to be hung with a black curtain. I walked through it; the air cooled and the noises dimmed. The throat~catching smell of warm creosote came. Everything was still. My eyes liked the bandage of the dark. Then, with a suddenness that made me gasp, the swallow was there and gone, diving back into the bright. It called once as it left, its buzzing twitter like an electrical spark. I looked up through the murk and saw on a crossbeam a little mud pie with tiny sticks of straw poking from it. I forgot my train and the shouting.
That afternoon my father took me back to the shed so I could peer into the nest. Again, as we stepped into the dark, the swallow slipped over us; it was so close I could feel the air rub against me. On my father’s shoulders I raised my arms towards the nest, slowing and softening my reach as I felt for the bumpy balls of mud and the prickly stems. There were no young birds, or even any eggs yet. I couldn’t see into the cup, but let my fingers creep over its rim, feeling the smoothed lip and the feathers lining the tiny bowl. It was warm.
Some days later, I went to the shed but found it empty. On the hard ribbed concrete floor was a square mess of baby swallow, a miniature hooked beak, downy balding feathers, raised but useless open wings, dead half-meat beneath thin bat-skin.
I remember just these two scenes – one of calm and one of horror. I didn’t see the birds fledge any young; I had no concept of their departure. But I became a birdwatcher that summer. The swallows, their flight, their music, their stopped moments perched on wires or incubating their eggs, their nest – all this was somehow laid inside me, like iron in my blood, so that no swallow after Acresfield has been my first, but all swallows since have joined that bird appearing above me and flying on ahead.
A theme to which Dee returns frequently and compellingly is the mystery of migration. The autumn departures and spring arrivals of birds ‘have made a timetable in my life’, he writes.
To be deprived of an autumn, its chilling lift, its emptying blast, and all its atmospheres between, held indoors shuttered from the wind and the light, or exiled to the seasonless tropics, would be a kind of death. My children have been born, my parents have grown old, relationships have been made and foundered and made again, my work has flowered and soured and rallied – all these human adventures are what my life has been built from. Yet my years throughout have been rhythmically driven by the step up into spring and the swing away into autumn and the movements of birds through them. Comings and goings. Windfalls.
He records the passage of migrants in places as far-flung as Fair Isle (one of the first places in the world where passage birds were logged and studied, and where the mystery of migration began to be solved) to the plain before Troy, in western Turkey, where Dee encounters one of his favourite birds – the redstart, en route from Russia or Ukraine. The rusty red of the redstart’s tail reminds Dee that Aristotle thought that the summer redstarts of Greece turned into its winter robins.
Thinking of redstarts also reminds Dee of John Buxton who, while a prisoner of war in a German camp in Bavaria in 1940 observed a family of redstarts ‘unconcerned in the affairs of our skeletal multitude, going about their ways in cherry and chestnut trees’. When the next spring came, and the redstarts returned, he set out to study the birds during the hours he in the camp that he spent out of doors. The result was The Redstart, published in 1950 and, in Dee’s opinion ‘one of the finest bird books’. Dee writes:
His ornithology was good, but what makes Buxton’s book so unusual and distinguished is his beautifully expressed humility in the face of what he sees. Before the book has got under way he is saying he hasn’t really written a work of natural history at all: ‘These redstarts . . . I loved for their own sake and not for the sake of adding to men’s knowledge.’ His modesty, his gently expressed jealousy of the redstarts’ freedom, his assertion again and again that the birds might not be doing what he thinks they are – all make for remarkably tender science.
He quotes this passage from Buxton’s book:
I must be understood to refer only to my redstarts. […] My redstarts? But one of the chief joys of watching them in prison was that they inhabited another world than I; and why should I call them mine? They lived wholly and enviably to themselves, unconcerned in our fatuous politics, without the limitations imposed all about us by our knowledge. They lived only in the moment, without foresight and with memory only of things of immediate practical concern to them – which was their nesting hole, and which their path to it, where lay the boundaries beyond which they would not go; memory also, perhaps, of the way back when their one necessary urgent purpose was done, to the hot sun of Africa.
Throughout this illuminating book, Dee is alert not just to the details of the birds he is observing, but also to the various ways in which birds have inspired artists, poets and musicians. He notes, for example, that in May 1940, the same month that John Buxton was captured, Olivier Messiaen was imprisoned in Stalag VIIII-A at Gorlitz. It was there he wrote – and premièred – his Quartet for the End of Time, which features musical accounts of a blackbird (played on the clarinet) and a nightingale (the violin).
Thinking about prisoners who preserved their sanity by taking pleasure in the freedom of birds leads Dee to recall the strange and inhumane experiments conducted on swallows during the Cold War by the Soviet ornithologist, DS Lyuleeva. To determine the energy costs of birds’ flight, she caught swallows and swifts, deprived them of food to empty their guts, then sewed their bills shut so they couldn’t feed on the wing, and threw them back into the air. Later, the birds (or those that survived) were recaptured and had their mass losses calculated. As Dee dryly observes:
This episode suggested that considerable losses of weight, characteristic of swallows deprived of food for a long period of time, induce torpidity and subsequent death. Perhaps I am missing something, but this doesn’t seem a major scientific breakthrough – if a bird cannot eat it dies.
He goes on to draw a grim moral from these experiments, conducted in the 1960s on the Baltic shore of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia which was then a military zone and a heavily policed frontier of the USSR, with watchtowers and border guards – ‘and just a few permitted scientists from Leningrad stitching shut the beaks of swallows’. The people there were cut off from their shore, kept from their sea:
Declared out of bounds to ordinary people, the bow-line of sand became a slowly shifting northern desert. In a decade of concrete and iron, walls and wires, weaponry and rust, on a cold Soviet shore an ornithologist is sewing a thread through the nostrils of a swallow, a bird that had come freely into that pallid spring from its winter in the skies of South Africa, another country then savage towards its own people. It is hard not to see some human envy, unspoken but deep, at work in these experiments. The birds come and go, we are stuck here, let us catch them and tie them to us.
Or, as one poet put it (when thinking about dogs):
I am compelled to conclude
That man is the superior animal.When I consider the curious habits of man
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.
– Meditatio by Ezra Pound
Another striking feature of The Running Sky is the way in which Dee repeatedly slides between birdwatching episodes and moments in his personal life. Perhaps the most vivid example comes in the chapter in which he remembers his childhood in Bristol, when a daily paper round would take him past the Avon Gorge where he would watch birds as they coped with the ‘wind machine’ of the Gorge, ‘the bash and thrust of air funnelled and collected by its cliffs and slopes’ that made its own wind: ‘gusts, thermals and aerial maelstroms’. He watched jackdaws and other birds there, but there was always one kind of bird that was missing – the peregrine.
This chapter combines a brilliant analysis of the book about peregrines which has become a classic – JA Baker’s The Peregrine – and the afternoon when, as a twelve-year old on his paper round,’I saw a man jump into the Avon Gorge and I learned as deeply as seemed possible, then and now, that we cannot fly and we must make our escapes in other ways’.
Dee’s is the best discussion of Baker’s strange yet wonderful book that I have come across. It is a book, avers Dee, ‘the weirdness [of which] cannot be overstated’. ‘Blood-drenched and strewn with corpses’, Baker’s book is also:
A grounded man’s love affair with the airborne, a story told by a downed Icarus long after his fall, earthed, haggard and self-loathing, traipsing through marshes, crouching in ditches and lurking on field edges, and looking up before a greater creature.
The Peregrine is, Dee asserts, ‘nature writing’s Goya’. It was the greatest ‘and most needed’ bird book of his youth. Then, on his paper round one November afternoon and looking out for peregrines, he was cycling across the bridge over the gorge when a young man just in front of him
Turned his head to the right and glanced over his shoulder. Perhaps he saw me, maybe he didn’t. As he turned his head, he brought a cigarette in his right hand to his mouth and dragged on it; its tiny fire throbbed brightly back to me. Then, still walking, with the cigarette in his mouth, he put both hands on the wooden railing of the bridge to his left, and vaulted over the side.
The precision of the observation, written down now decades later, speaks of a birdwatcher’s accuracy – and of a horror that was burned into a young boy’s memory, and which would not leave the man. Dee writes how, ten years later, his breath faltered as he entered the building at Tring where the Natural History Museum’s bird collection is kept. There was something about ‘the hospital-clean corridors’,the ‘institutional quietness’ and the sense of ‘being in some giant tomb’ that took him back to the coroner’s courtroom in Bristol where he had been summoned to make his statement about the suicidal leap into the void.
For me, the finest chapter is that in which Dee describes dusk on the Somerset Levels at the winter solstice, as thousands of starlings arrive to roost. ‘Every evening’, he writes,
through the winters of the past few years, thousands, even millions, of starlings have come to sleep here. Eight million were counted, somehow, in one roost here a year or so ago. Th0′ may be the largest ever gathering of birds in Britain. Imagine Hyde Park Corner in failing light and the entire population of London arriving there from all points across the city.
By the time Dee arrives flocks of a hundred or more are already out on the Levels:
Local birds and arriving birds mixed, squabbling, feeding and talking. […] They seemed to be joining some necessary action. A call-up was under way.
That evening, summer was further off than it would ever be. Stowed sunshine from months ago was rationed, like the last grains of sugar in a siege. Its light and heat survived in only the flimsiest of things: the feathered seed heads of the reeds that engraved fine scratches onto the plate of the sky, and the tiny contact calls swapped between parties of long-tailed tits as they moved through the willow tops, living in the warmth of their own talk. Everything else was, or soon would be, a shade of black.
Tim Dee’s description of what follows is magnificent:
From all sides there were lines of starlings, in layers of about fifteen birds thick stretching for three miles back into the sky and coming towards the reed beds that surrounded me. They came out of the furthest reaches of the air, materialising into it from far beyond where my eyes or binoculars could reach in the murk. All flew with a lightly rippling glide, as if the net they were making of themselves was being evenly drawn into a single point in the reed bed.
Their arrival and accumulation had been eerily silent. From the early afternoon, first in the villages and then in the staging fields, there had been great noise. A collective telling and retelling of starling life rose through those hours of pre-roost talk to a complicated but loquacious rendering of all things – idiomatic adventure, mimetic brilliance and delighted conversational murmur. Once this annotation of the day was done, the birds grew quiet and lifted up and off to begin their thickening flights towards the roost.
There were thousands of mute birds around me, their wheeze and jabber left behind. Many thousands more were too far away to hear, but their calm progress towards the roost suggested they flew in silence. Closer, the only noise was of the flock’s feathers. As they wheeled and gyred en masse, the sound of their wings turning swept like brushes dashed across a snare drum or a Spanish fan being flicked open. The air was thick with starlings, inches apart and racked back into the darkening sky for a mile. Every bird was within a wing stretch of another. None touched.
A rougher magic overtook them as they arrived above the reeds. Great ductile cartwheels of birds were unleashed across the sky. Conjured balls of starlings rolled out and up, shoaling from their descending lines, thickening and pulling in on themselves – a black bloom burst from the seedbed of birds. One wheel hit another and the carousels of birds chimed and merged, like iron filings made to bend to a magnet. The flock – but flock doesn’t say anything like enough – pulsed in and out.
Dee is overcome by the scale of it all: to describe the flock is ‘like trying to hold on to a dream in daylight – it slips from me, it cannot be summoned except in fragments, and they cannot be transcribed’. Then he makes a remarkable comparison:
Try singing it. I thought of Thomas Tallis’s forty-part devotional motet Spem in alium from 1570. […] Could its eleven and a half minutes of singing light the black midwinter night and the black midwinter starlings?
Spem in alium doesn’t describe what the flock does. It is the flock. The music – unaccompanied singing, or rather singing that only accompanies itself – comes in, opening its throat before us, beginning with some tentative note on some frontier of sound, arriving into a space from a place without space, from far away. It might be one bird flying, or the sound of a wave beginning far out in the Atlantic. The sound catches and swirls towards us, becomes a striving, and folds into itself and floats and opens further with a beautiful frail young solo which twists my ears and then gives onto a landscape like the great heave of an abstract painting, making me think of Peter Lanyon’s sky masterpieces, as well as starlings hatching from the evening. It is huge and everywhere, but tilted and very close. And all along there is the strangest of pulses, a breathing, a flexing continuo, that rises into the heights…
Brilliant writing: the birds have become music; the music’s form consists of birds in movement.
In the touching ‘Afterword- Singing’ Dee recalls the time when, ten years old, he was kissed by a girl for the first time. But he ‘couldn’t kiss her back – a mistle thrush got between us’. Dee tells it with a mysterious lyricism:
A cold ragged day had begun without promise. The year had pulled into itself. Light came up but there was no sky, the blank space above looked as if it had been rubbed with a dirty cloth, a worn grey smear pushing over everything. It was Surrey and the weekend and I was bored. Autumn was over, Christmas a long way off.
My mother called me to the front room and pointed through the window. There was a girl standing on the road, at the bottom of our driveway, below the line of bare beech trees, looking up to the house. I knew her – it was Karen – and I knew straight away why she had come, but I wasn’t ready. My mother said she had already been there for a while and that I should go out to her. I didn’t want to but I did.
I opened the front door, starting down the gravel. It was about a hundred yards to Karen. As I walked I could see her lips moving, her mouth opening and closing. I couldn’t hear her because a mistle thrush had started shouting its song from somewhere high up in the trees. I heard the bird as you might hear a lighthouse – a voice on its own, powering away through the wind, a clean brittle shout of far-carrying pure song. It lit all quarters of the sky space with
short repeated stabbing notes that made me wince as if it were cold.
Karen had come up through the hundred-acre hangar of trees … from where she lived, near our school. She was like a mistle thrush herself – lean, leggy, a little severe, with a short haircut and spectacles – and as I stepped closer, though I still couldn’t hear her, her lips moved and she seemed to be singing
the thrush’s song, as a troubadour might recruit an ‘auzel’. Love had brought her here, love of a kind, like the thrush. She and it were working against the season — it was November – the days were still shrinking back, but the bird was lighting the way to spring and Karen wanted to do the same.
I couldn’t answer her – I was not even eleven, she was six inches taller than me, and it was all too soon. The thrush had stopped my ears. Karen smiled and tried again. She looked down sweetly to me, her head falling to her chest as if she’d been hung from a hanging tree. She steeled herself and said that she would go if I would let her kiss me.
She leant in and kissed me on the lips. The mistle thrush was directly above us, high up in the broom head of the bare trees. I felt it was singing into my skull, annealing my whole body with its bright, white music, heating me up and cooling me down. I followed Karen’s eyes as she looked up, and replied
with a peck on her cheek; it was all l knew. She turned and as I watched her cross the road and start down the path through the wood, the mistle thrush was still banging on, shouting after her.
The funny thing is that, although The Restless Sky received unanimous praise from the critics when it was published, if you go to the book’s page on Amazon and scroll through the reader reviews posted there, you’ll find many irritated and disgruntled comments. Along the lines of:
I imagine going birdwatching with him and decided that you just couldn’t walk 2 yards without some literary quote. Look it’s a Skylark, (ah yes Shelley said…) it’s a Carrion Crow (ah yes Shakespeare) shall we go in this hut (ah yes it reminds me of a Canaletto) – arrrggghhhh!
I only made the start of the third chapter before hurling it with some force against the wall. The inappropriate adjectives, the redundant metaphors, the flights of fancy!!!
I suspect there is a certain kind of birdwatcher who (like Chris Packham, perhaps) just wants the unadorned facts, and no poetic flights of fancy. But as Tim Dee points out somewhere in the book, both poetry and science can contribute to our appreciation of the natural world:
Science makes discoveries when it admits to not knowing, poetry endures if it looks hard at real things. Nature writing, if such a thing exists, lives in this territory where science and poetry meet. It must be made of both; it needs truth and beauty.
Simon Armitage, in The Poetry of Birds (co-written with Tim Dee) wonders why poets have written so many poems about birds. ‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level,’ he writes, ‘birds are also our souls’. He continues:
Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.