The Running Sky: A Bird-Watching Life by Tim Dee

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The Running Sky: A Bird-Watching Life by Tim Dee

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Connecting poetry and birds, Tim Dee's memoir is full of wonderful imagery which serious birders will appreciate. More general readers may find the book less accessible.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099516491

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Tim Dee may already be known to you as a distinguished critic and adjudicator of contemporary poetry, or for producing BBC Radio 4's 'Poetry Please'. So it's hardly surprising that my first impression of his birdwatching memoir, The Running Sky is of poetic exactitude transferred to another genre. But I remain dazzled by the sustained quality of his writing over 80,000 words. Opened at any page, paragraphs of graceful prose enclose figurative language capturing the very essence of flight (hence the title, from a Philip Larkin poem). To Dee, flight is the nub of a bird's independence. He describes and wonders poetically – be it the collective sweep of flock formations, the mysteries of migration, or individual observations of nightjars, carrion crows or peregrines.

Dee selects memories from a lifetime of observations. His relationship with birds is intense, personality-defining even. His earliest recollection, at the age of three, is of following a nest-building swallow into the garden shed. As a teenager, he describes himself as hard core and obsessed as his bored dad trails him round local bird-watching sites. By now living in Bristol, he is shocked from fantasies of flight by a passing stranger jumping from Clifton Suspension Bridge. This defining moment saps his confidence around humans and pushes him into an even intenser relationship with birds. In troubled adult times, the ritual of bird observation soothes him. Later and more happily, he recalls the sensory delight of handling warm bodies of wild birds as he nets and rings them before migration. What a wonderful memory!

If you are a serious birdwatcher, and haven't already discovered Tim Dee, you have a treat in store. The book is organized into admirably logical monthly chapters, with multiple episodes spanning forty years. Dee travels to sites through Great Britain and further afield that you would give your eye teeth to visit. His book is full enough of literary and natural history references, meticulously annotated, to inform the most diligent of researchers. (If you want to take the literary angle even further, he edited The Poetry of Birds with Simon Armitage in the autumn of 2009.) He even has some witty observations to make about seasickness on the Fair Isle ferry.

But now I must confess. Although I own three bird books, a pair of binoculars and have recently heard a corncrake (though not, alas, spotting him/her), I'm not a serial birdwatcher. And honestly, I didn't really enjoy reading this book. Perhaps I lacked the wide field background needed for the writing to resonate personally. Perhaps I needed illustrations to make the text more accessible (and I'm thinking here of high-quality texts such as Hamish Haswell-Smith's The Scottish Islands). Perhaps, because I never managed to pick out a time-line of Tim Dee's life to which I could peg my mind map, I floundered, when all I really needed was a little more story to set the observations in a narrative context that would jolly me along.

I'll be giving this book a second reading. It deserves closer study to fully appreciate some very fine writing.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending The Running Sky.

Suggestions for further reading:

That excellent AA Series of guides includes Garden Birds and Wildlife by Mike Toms and Paul Sterry, which The Bookbag reviewer found very clear and helpful.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a travelogue by Horatio Clare of countries visited by a migratory swallow (A Single Swallow). Mark Crocker presents a focused approach by concentrating on one species in a small area of Norfolk in Crow Country. While Flocks Last, by Charlie Elder, is a British birdwatching memoir.

Buy The Running Sky: A Bird-Watching Life by Tim Dee at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Running Sky: A Bird-Watching Life by Tim Dee at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Running Sky: A Bird-Watching Life by Tim Dee at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Running Sky: A Bird-Watching Life by Tim Dee at Amazon.com.


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