Tim Dee is a BBC radio producer and a very fine writer. His first book The Running Sky was a superb meditation not just on bird-watching, but on life. Last month I read his latest book Four Fields, in which Dee’s subject is, broadly, the way in which humans across the planet have shaped the landscape through cultivation. Succinctly summing up the idea that lends unity to his book, Dee writes:
Without fields – no us. Without us – no fields.
The four fields of the book’s title are spread around the world. They are places that he has known for a long time, each one different. He begins with the field closest to home on Burwell Fen. Dee’s evocations of this Cambridgeshire field at each season stitch together his accounts of other fields he has known. Like all of them, it is an artificial, man-made construct: dredged in the 17th century from a waterlogged fen.
Part bird-watching journal, part history of local land reclamation and agricultural practices, these chapters combine mundane detail with lyrical evocations of birds and other wildlife and tell how the fen was once an ancient seabed covered by salt-water, until humans learned to drain it and use the land for farming and herding.
Dee meditates on what can ever be ‘natural’ in a landscape so altered, so fiddled with by humans. He highlights the ironies in the current drive to return fen ecosystems, damaged by drainage and modern intensive farming, to their original state – a process that is simply subjecting these ‘natural’ spaces to still more human manipulation. Perhaps the biggest irony is that the land is steadily shrinking as water has been wrung from the spongy fens. The soil is drying and wasting – six feet every sixty years – so that, already below sea level, it could at some time in the future return to being a watery waste.
All four of the fields about which Dee writes are grassed at the moment. They are, writes Dee, real fields:
A few hundred acres standing for the real world. They could be walked, mapped, mown and known. Each has lived, at least for some time, as an apparently flat and plain place but also as a living sheet on which people sketched or screened various dreams for a while.
In a field in southern Zambia, Dee follows a local field worker who is himself following the calls of a honeyguide bird which will lead them to a wild bees’ nest and a hive of honey. For thousands of years, the same bird has called to people across sub-Saharan Africa for the same reason, to hunters, herdsmen, field labourers and travellers. From the Zambian farm Dee’s focus shifts to the endless grassed plains of the Masai Mara in southern Kenya. This is the earth as it was before humans began to cultivate and erect fences, a place where hundreds of thousands of wildebeest still roam freely, following the grass as the rains move across these vast lands in a colossal annual migration:
Arriving in in the Mara is to enter a grassed universe .. the grassiest place you’ve ever been. The earth stretches generously over its equatorial miles. I have never seen so many blades of grass in one field of view.
The three great food crops of the world are grasses: rice, corn and wheat. Yet grass is a newcomer by botanical standards; it only came to dominate the northern hemisphere in the last 12,000 years, around the time homo sapiens arrived on the plains of North America. Dee’s story, suggested elliptically, is how the grasslands were enclosed, an inexorable process that spread across the African grasslands, robbed the plains Indians of their North American heritage, and compelled John Clare to pen ‘The Lament of Swordy Well‘.
All fields are places of outlasting transience. They reset time. Each has a past but lives in the present; each has a biography but is still a work in progress.
The farm in Zambian is rapidly returning to bush since the ex-pat farm owner died, leaving his sick widow broke. The African workers have stayed because they have nowhere else to go. All over the African continent, he writes, ‘habitats are being degraded, forests are cut to nothing, lakes fouled, foetid shanties grow as large as cities.’
‘Nowhere’, writes Dee, ‘is truly unfenced any longer in North America’. At the site of the Little Bighorn battlefield which seemed such a great victory for the Plains Indians when they annihilated Custer and his troops in June 1876, Dee observes that ‘what happened, in the end, was the wire’:
They lost everything within a few short years. Fields came from the east and with them fences.
The previous night, camped in the Badlands of Montana, Dee lay in his tent and imagined ‘the undoing of it all’:
First the lightning leaping back into the sky, the clouds sucked into the dark blue night. Then, across the plain below and stretching ever wider, the United States united, unfenced and unfarmed; wire twanging from its staples, posts returned to pine trunks; hay sprung from its bale and replanted as grass, the juice coming again into it. Earth in the ploughed fields tamping back its own furrows, the glister of wet soil gone; seeds springing up into a sower’s hand; the crust of the badlands made good without a scar; grass touching grass across thousands of miles into a single spread. Barn swallows, before barns, coursing the lawns for insects; a grasshopper that never stopped; and across this open land, flapping flags of skin and fur rushing at mounds of meat and wrapping them, the buffalo kneeling up from the ground and moving away through the grass. Smoke drawn back into the barrels of rifles, arrows taken to sticks, feathers and flints. The railway tidied into reversing boxcars; other buffalo pulled up a cliff like a smoking waterfall; wheels rolled from the skeletons of carts; the continent remembering the drum of unshod hooves. An Indian climbing down from the bare back of a horse; animals in the grass losing the smell of people in their noses, the Europeans at sea losing the green smell of the new world and sailing backwards over the horizon.
Tim Dee’s fourth field is the exclusion zone around Chernobyl in Ukraine where the nuclear power station blew apart in 1986 – a thousand square miles of abandoned land, towns and villages just two hours by car from one of Europe’s capital cities. Here is where we really messed things up.
Dee is reminded of the Psalmist’s line: ‘All life is but as grass’.
In a field outside an abandoned town, where trees push through the roof of a bus shelter, Dee helps a team gathering biological data to monitor grasshoppers in the radioactive zone. But, for the birdwatcher it’s the swallows that haunt him. Often the only birds they encounter, ‘their lovely chittering flights, warm sociable and unhindered, seemed to come from another time and place, the best of a summer farm thrown up into the autumn air above a forest.’
But, in this ghastly place where the telephone poles rot and trees grow in abandoned health centres and libraries, the swallows are terribly afflicted. Some have beaks that will not close, or feet pointing in opposite directions. But their worst affliction is their wondrous homing instinct that pulls them back here every spring: it’s killing them, but they cannot stay away.
The cultivated fields of a thousand years are returning to forest. Even the abandoned city of Prypiat, built to serve the nuclear plant in 1970, is a forest now, trees growing from ten-storey apartment blocks, pushing their way through asphalt and concrete. It lasted sixteen years.
Down the wooded streets of Prypiat’s arrested past you are bowled into the aftermath of man, into a future that has already arrived. I have been nowhere else that has felt as dead as here, been nowhere that made me feel as posthumous.
Here, especially, Tim Dee emphasizes how human needs and activities change over time, yet leaving traces of former endeavours, writing of the human space becoming ‘a landscape that endures even in its ruin’:
There are tangled human voices in each field, but there is also the sound of the grass.
Four Fields adds up to a prose-poem meditation on the way human activities affect, for better and for worse, the eternal ‘transubstantiation of the earth.’ Fields, Dee writes, are ‘the most articulate description and vivid enactment of our life here on earth’, adding ‘we reap what we sow’.
The success of Four Fields lies in the fact that Tim Dee makes fields – something so ordinary, ubiquitous and banal that we stop noticing them – a subject so interesting, describing his encounters with such lyricism, that we keep reading.
Might it be possible to look again and to see the grass and the fields afresh? Our making of fields, first of all from that grass has tied us to nature more than any other human activity. … Fields offer the most articulate description and vivid enactment of our life here on earth, of how we live both within the grain of the world and against it.
Admittedly, there were parts where I thought that a bit of editorial pruning – especially in parts of the fens chapters and his account of the Little Bighorn battlefield – could have eliminated some mundane material and reinforced the book’s eloquence. But, for the most part, Tim Dee writes like an angel in his closely-observed descriptions of the natural world – and especially of birds. Olivia Laing in the New Statesman asserted, quite rightly, that ‘some passages have the miraculous quality of dreams’, referring particularly to Dee’s description of swifts sleeping high above the earth:
I lay on my back in the middle of the field and looked up. … The swifts were still there flying above me in the way they always fly, describing their continual motion, their permanent entrance into the sky: endlessly, effortlessly, blackly uncoiling, always moving yet always there. Above me were birds that wouldn’t make contact with anything that touched the Earth for at least ten months. One swift that summered in Oxford was known throughout its life. It lived to be eighteen and in those years had flown 2 million miles, the equivalent of four round trips to the moon. […]
Above me the swifts were quiet. So quiet they seemed to silence the air. They seem to darken their surroundings as well, their blackness spilling from them. They sleep on the wing. […] The birds I saw lifting themselves into the sky beyond my eyes were probably preparing to sleep. In their sleep-flight they rock from one side to the other as if they were being swung in a cradle. It is thought this motion is prompted by a sleep pattern that dims and then alternates brain activity. First the left side of the swift sleeps and then its right. The sleeping half begins to fall through the air, the waking half corrects the fall. […] Flying above the Earth they move around the world as it moves around – beneath and above – them, their globe-curved heads like little planets, half-lit, half-dark, swaying above the swaying earth, the bending grass, and the curved reeds.
Four Fields opens with cut grass scattered across the A14 and closes with grains of wheat falling into cracks in the tarmac as Dee in his car follows a tractor pulling a trailer of freshly-harvested grain. These are images symbolic of Dee’s investigation of fields and their cultivation, the shifting and problematic boundary between the human world and nature.
Grass seeds and broken stems and leaves get stuck in the lining of my boots on almost every crossing of a field… I shake them out, my coup de grace, sowing on to my little back lawn the seeds from half a mile away and from thousands of miles away, reed flags and sedge-heads, Bushmen’s and steppe-feather, prairie and timothy. My days.