Four Fields by Tim Dee

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Four Fields by Tim Dee

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Category: Animals and Wildlife
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Inherently rural and exclusively impressionistic and personal, this nature ramble across four very diverse fieldlands offers many a fine picture, but wasn't always in perfect focus for me.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 9780099541370

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If asked to name, or even think of, four fields, the common man might well struggle, such is the chance of him living in a city. He might not think of the local park as a field, and he may turn to the field of the cloth of gold if a historian, the field of dreams perhaps, or he might at least have something looking like a football pitch in his mind's eye. Tim Dee, not a nature scientist as such but so in tune with the outside world he really doesn't seem to have stopped indoors but to write this book in the past decade, seems like the sort of person who could hardly name four buildings, but would relish the chance to itemise his favourite fields. He is very doubtful any two in Britain are the same. Like snowflakes, then, they can bear a closer examination to show their full picture – and Dee picks on four, across the world and noted for events across the last few thousand years, to focus on. The result is a rich – if at times over-rich – summation of the birdlife above the fields, and everything Dee knows and loves about them.

Although field is a loose term in the specifics of this book. Of the four fields, Field One is the most predominant, looked at in all the four seasons in individual chapters. It is much more loose than the name suggests, being more specifically a collection of fields and experiences taken from across the Cambridgeshire Fens. In this part of the world no one field can ever be called an entity in and of itself – the water making up such a characterful part of the environment is never contained in one place; the plants and birds will never know any boundaries. Field Two might be thought of as a particular farmland in Zambia, but it has to encompass migratory animals and safaris just as much as it does run-down tobacco plantations and honeyguide birds pointing out bees' nests just so they can have second dibs on the honey us humans reveal for them. If the fact that these fields have been purloined for our use over centuries has evaded us, Field Three is in Montana, and shows us the Killing Fields where white men stole territory from others just so they could grow fields of crops. Within fifty years the US was a dustbowl, sheltering under a financial and ecological storm that stretched three hundred miles out into the Atlantic and lasted for years.

I know it's my job to report back on the book and not its blurb, but when it's necessary I'll do so. There's a word on the back of this of it being a project. Make no mistake, something as firm and fixed as that word suggests is not to be applied here. This writing is much looser, flitting, swooping, darting, hovering – yes, there is more to the book's birdlike qualities than just the subject matter. Dee, a bird spotter and fanatic outdoorsman from a very young age, cannot keep his eyes downwards for long, and indeed lets his writing take flight. This is not a project but a projection – an evocative, poetic sampling of life as it is lived and as it has been seen by one man. It's psychogeography as lived by birds. Don't expect anything like day-and-date reportage, or the hard facts of a travelogue. This is much more wistful, impressionistic, fleeting – the bird notices coming with style and not with chronological order. Like the comedy that dies with close examination, Dee lets the world and its birds follow their path without itemising the evolutionary or biological processes involved. Only in Field Four, the restricted and lethal zone around the ruins of Chernobyl does science come into focus. There's a caveat to that, however, for the personal approach to the unique surroundings and ruined life patterns therein still make this chapter by far the strongest of the book.

Because there are weaknesses. I wouldn't have thought that four long chapters visiting the same place, more or less, but in different ways and in very different seasons, would have the same mental image in my mind – tempered with the same colour. I am still not sure why Tolstoy jumps onto the pages here so much if not merely to show the author's erudition and exterior knowledge. And there is that sense of the birds and their sightings being put to artistic, poetic use, as opposed to actually forming their real, vivid existences on the page. To me, they all meant the affinity Dee has with these places remained distant, except for with Ukraine – I wished afterwards to have saved that chapter to last. With luxurious and quotably rich language Dee takes us with him on his journeys so that you do see the flutter of wings above unique areas of land, but at times the results were probably too close to his spotter's diary – full of cramped detail, and of less interest than if you had been there.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy. We also have a review of The Running Sky: A Bird-Watching Life by Tim Dee.

Where Do Camels Belong?: The story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson appealed to me as a nature book. If you have a field of your own to begin examining, Garden Birds and Wildlife by Mike Toms and Paul Sterry might be a basic primer for exploring first.

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