Four Fields by Tim Dee: The troublesome boundary between the human and the natural

The naturalist Tim Dee has written an ambitious, affectionate investigation into the pastoral by way of four fields dotted around the globe.

A man carries a cross near Chernobyl.
A man carries a wooden cross near the abandoned village of Dovliady, near Chernobyl, one of the four places in Dee's book. Photograph: Getty Images.

Four Fields
Tim Dee
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £18.99

A few years ago, Tim Dee wrote a magical memoir of birdwatching, a voyage both literary and airborne, The Running Sky. Now he returns with something far more ambitious: a loving investigation into the pastoral by way of four fields around the globe. It opens with cut grass scattered across the A14 and closes with grains of wheat nestled in cracks in tarmac: heraldic images for a work that situates itself on the troublesome boundary between the human and the natural.

The first of Dee’s four fields is Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, a few miles from his home. The fen has been contested ground for centuries, sometimes flooded and sometimes drained, sometimes planted and sometimes disgorging enigmatic relics – bog oaks, desiccated moles, the pickled body of a fenman standing bolt upright in a canoe.

As Dee returns through the seasons, he disentangles some of the counterintuitive facts of the place, the way it has resisted being farmed and managed; the ways that human endeavours past and present have created habitats for species we might more commonly think of as wholly shy of humankind.

The language is almost overwhelmingly rich and ripe, full of tumbling wordplay (a storm on the fens leaves him “shrunken in the wash”). Dee has a naturalist’s knack for close-range seeing (and smelling: the description of a little, foot-high scented tower above a dead shrew suggests an acutely precise olfactory system).

Some passages have the miraculous quality of dreams – a description of swifts sleeping high above the earth, or of skating across frozen fens, the grass preserved in rippling waves beneath a sheet of ice.

Sometimes these good earth dreams slip into nightmares. Out in the bush in southern Zambia, Dee encounters a river crossing where more than a hundred wildebeest have drowned: “the biggest uncooked sausage ever made”. Death stalks his fields, and even in the most bucolic settings he senses their cache of corpses, their scent of rot.

Towards the end of the book, he travels to Chernobyl to assist two scientists in gathering grasshoppers from the nuclear exclusion zone. The writing that follows is among the most powerful and indelible about disaster I have ever encountered. Dee dismisses the notion that the wild is reclaiming this depopulated and abandoned place, describing the swallows with their feet on backwards and pine trees bare of twigs but displaying at the ends of their branches mad black balls of needles, as if, “at its dirty fingertips, the tree had grown its own wreaths”.

This is a different order of death altogether: death of a sterile, permanent kind. And yet even here, Dee manages a kind of plainsong of despair. Regarding the piles of prams, lampshades and bikes in the abandoned Ukrainian village of Vesniane, he writes: “Here is our Scythian gold, our Roman silver, our cave paintings, our ghost shirts and dream-catchers, here all of it dreck and trash and the colour of old blood, our pigment gift to the world’s palette, our rust.” This is writing and thinking that leaves the parochial concerns of most of what we designate “nature writing” in the dust.

One of the persistent tensions of the genre is how to handle the people in the landscape. Dee, thoughtful about the problems of the past historic, the caricatures of fen folk in moleskin gaiters romping through the tabulations of gentlemen-historians, runs into sticky ground on his third field, a contested stretch of Montana where the battle of the Little Bighorn was fought in 1876.

It is a place to consider the colonial imperatives of farming and its costs, yet Dee seems baffled and unsettled by the spectacle of the dispossessed and disheartened Crow tribe and their tatty reservations. It’s a pity that such an attentive listener to all the birdcalls of the world chose to speak at greatest length to a part-Crow who doesn’t speak the tribal language and to a white academic “who knows more Crow lore and history than most Indians”, rather than considering the sense the surviving First People make of their own trials.

During his week in Chernobyl, Dee was forbidden to take anything out; instead, he left a postcard of Wicken Fen in Prypiat, an abandoned city where the trees have taken over. On it, he wrote “Field One for Field Four”. Funny, but it’s that postcard that stayed with me. It seems to sum up both the best of this book and of our own busy work as a species, our capacity for sympathetic interest, the myriad sowings and seedings we have brought forth across the world. That, and the image of a flock of goldfinches, “like itinerant weavers flying their precious thread through the homespun, until the whole fen became a field of the cloth of gold”.

This is virtuosic beyond the merely visual, its aesthetic power drawn from Dee’s sense of deep time, his ability to interweave the natural, historical and cultural into one dense and lovely tapestry.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £20)