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.

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)

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.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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How Tony Blair's disingenuous line on Iraq eroded our faith in politicians

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne reveals how Blair exagerrated evidence from the intelligence services to parliament – and the public.

In this incisive book, Peter Oborne calls the invasion of Iraq “the defining calamity of the post-Cold War era” and I am inclined to agree. Not long after the March 2003 attack, I interviewed Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and UN ambassador for Iraq. He told me that he had visited President George W Bush in Washington a few weeks before the invasion and begged him not to go ahead with it. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would, Pachachi warned, lead inevitably to civil war between Iraq’s two main religious groupings, the Sunnis and the Shias. Bush was shocked. According to Pachachi, he had no idea that any such division among Muslims existed.

Granted, Bush was an ignoramus – but you would have thought that someone might have explained this crucial fact to him. Pachachi turned out to be right. Iraq has fallen into a disastrous religious civil war as a direct result of the invasion and Isis, a more extreme force even than al-Qaeda, has come to the fore. Nearly 5,000 coalition soldiers died; many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, perhaps a million, have lost their lives; and the man who led the whole terrible business didn’t know that the danger even existed.

Pachachi, like many politicians across the Middle East, found this puzzling. The US had never understood the Middle East, he said, but the British did; so why hadn’t Tony Blair warned the Americans what was going to happen? We know the answer to that: although Blair was far cleverer than Bush and had better advisers, his approach was always a subservient one. Like the entire British establishment, he believed that Britain’s influence in the world depended on sticking close to the US and he was prepared to be led around on a leash because he knew that this was the only relationship Bush’s people understood or wanted from him.

To “stand shoulder to shoulder” with Bush – at least, to stand closer behind him, head bowed, than any other national leader – Blair had to persuade the British people that Saddam posed a threat to them. Oborne, in fine forensic form, demolishes (his word) the notion that Blair was simply repeating what the intelligence services had told him about Saddam’s weapons and capability; he shows that Blair exaggerated and misrepresented the intelligence he was given.

Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary who had investigated the government’s pre-invasion use of intelligence, said the same thing in a speech in the House of Lords in 2007. He described Blair’s approach as “disingenuous”: mandarin-speak for dishonest. Oborne quotes Butler at length:

 

The United Kingdom intelligence community told him [Blair] on 23 August 2002 that, “We . . . know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988.” The prime minister did not tell us that. Indeed, he told parliament only just over a month later that the picture painted by our intelligence services was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”.

 

Oborne’s central point is that this dishonesty has done serious damage to the fundamental trust that the British people used to have in their rulers. There are all sorts of reasons why people have lost faith in politicians but it was the charismatic Blair – along with his head of communications, Alastair Campbell – who let us down the most.

Campbell is a former journalist who, even when he was the political editor of the Daily Mirror, seemed far more concerned with pushing a party line than with trying to report things truthfully. In May 2003, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan accused him of “sexing up” the dossier on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Campbell was irate. In July, Dr David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence weapons expert who had briefed Gilligan, committed suicide. If, indeed, it was suicide – once you start losing faith in the ­official version of things, there is no end to it. And that is Oborne’s point.

Kelly’s death was followed by the scandalous Hutton inquiry, which managed to deflect attention from the questionable nature of the dossier to the way in which Gilligan had reported on it. However, although Kelly wasn’t a sufficiently senior source for Gilligan to base his report on, there is no doubt that Gilligan was essentially right: the intelligence dossier had been grossly hyped up. Campbell’s frenzied efforts to protect himself and Blair did huge damage to the BBC, the judiciary, the intelligence and security agencies and public trust in government.

Oborne’s excellent book is clear-headed and furious in its condemnation of Blair. But what about the Chilcot report, when it appears on 6 July? The ludicrous delay in publishing it has given people the expectation that it, too, will be a whitewash. Yet we are starting to get leaks that it won’t be – that it will be just as savage as Oborne would like. That is the only way we can start to drain the poison that has built up in our national life since Blair took the calamitous decision to follow the US into invading a country that its president knew zip about.

John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) is the world affairs editor of the BBC

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne is published by Head of Zeus (208pp, £10)

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad