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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood