What a novelist Tim Dee might have made. In the tangled ecosystem of what gets called “nature writing” in Britain, there’s no one at work right now who shows anything like Dee’s command of prose, tone, voice, pace, depth and phrasing. Even before this spring is done with we can say that the genre is unlikely to furnish a richer reading experience than Greenery this year.
The book’s main character is Dee himself, now pushing 60 and on his fourth book, a voluble and self-effacingly expert narrator of stories that cross a hundred latitudes and spin off (sometimes wildly, like helicoptering ash keys) from the idea of springtime. A typical observation is that “in early May, the dawn chorus moves around the northern hemisphere at about 1,300 kilometres per hour”.
Greenery is a theme, but it’s one of many: the book might just as well have been called Movements, or Birds, or Life, or Time, or indeed Tim. Dee draws on a life spent travelling among the world’s birds to produce a masterpiece in small strokes, a work devoted to the ambiguous power of renewal in a world that at times seems to spin too quickly on its axis.
On the one hand, Dee’s prose reaches upward for the sky, exalted, exulting, worshipful, ecstatic among inrushing spring and streaming rivers of birds; on the other it is quite mindfully earthed or rooted in shit. Nobody writes about shit quite like Dee. A staggering section describes the woodcock as “old like shit is old”; a body pulled from a bog “has the colour and appearance of meconium”; the “chalky shit” of Icelandic guillemots is “enamelled brilliant white” by the sun; queleas deliver “the rainfall percussion of the shit of every shitter in the flock”; a half-rotted dead boar adrift in a river is “piss-yellow and turd-brown… like something flushed in the toilet swirl”. This firm hold of the earthy, the fundamental, is evidenced too by Dee’s repetition, with relish, of a DH Lawrence line: “Flowers are fucked into being, between sun and earth.”
Between sun and earth and between life and death – this is where Dee finds himself in Greenery. “One day I’ll see my last redstart,” he writes. “Perhaps I already have.” He recalls, as a boy, finding the onset of spring overshadowed by the knowledge of winter: “how could we enjoy the new green if there was already something eating it or breaking it off the trees?” He recalls, as a parent, his children “discover[ing] the end of time, learning… that they too would one day die”: “The best thing I ever did in the world was being part of the making of my children. The cruellest thing was the same.”
Life changes, brightens, darkens. Dee opens a nestbox lid and wonders if the rain that falls on the baby flycatchers inside is the first they’ve ever felt. He seems to improvise a ramshackle religion of spring: in an April wood in Somerset, he finds himself feeling, though “greyer, deafer, slower, more generally autumnal”, that “I too might be commonly sourced, or made at the same time from the same matter” as the oaks and redstarts.
Dee writes without academic lordliness, and doesn’t (for all his exaltation) invoke the privileges of the visionary. Nor is he able to go far without second-guessing himself. In a wordy description of an exhilarating encounter with a bear, he stops to consider whether he should, instead, follow the example of his local guide and simply note date, time, place and bear. Agreeing with Coleridge (who coined the word greenery) he concludes, a little sadly, that we humans write about nature at a remove: “we are interpreters, commentators, fabricators: fallen into our subjectivity, cut off from the great connected one-ness of life.”
Like everyone on the Waterstones nature table, Dee can turn a descriptive phrase. But this is grown-up writing that goes beyond the level of the sentence. The sublimities are often unexpected, as where a redwing pair are found nesting among shipwrecks in the long day of an Icelandic summer. Occasionally Dee’s verbal acrobatics can be too much, but the occasional wobble is to be expected in a sustained high-wire performance such as this. After over-reaching somewhat in a rueful riff on the implications of his own name (‘Tim, my first name, is held within time…”), Dee drily remarks: “An anagram of the six letters of my name is Edit Me.”
Beyond wildlife and landscape the excursions in Greenery are primarily into poetry (readers of books on nature are expected to be interested in poetry in a way that readers of literary biography are not necessarily expected to be interested in willow warbler migration). Dee is authoritative on Heaney, Coleridge, Hopkins and especially Lawrence, whose life – his endless itch for movement, his love of flowers – and death form one of the book’s running themes.
It’s somewhat awkward, amid a general and justified hubbub regarding the need for new voices in nature writing, to find that Tim Dee – middle-aged, white, male – is producing some of the most exciting and ambitious work in the genre. What, after all, is this book for? What good will it do, here in the depths of the climate crisis, of the sixth great extinction? It’s no call to arms, no manifesto; it does not go in especially hard on environmental issues. It won’t save the world. But it’s the sort of book that, in its expressive power, its creativity, the richness of its humanity, might make the world worth saving.
Richard Smyth’s most recent book, “An Indifference of Birds”, is published by Uniformbooks
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime
Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain