Tim Dee - Four Fields (4 stars)

A look at the man's effect on nature across the Cambridge Fens, Montana grasslands, Zambian plains and Chernobyl wastegrounds

Tim Dee - Four Fields

(Jonathan Cape)

In Four Fields, Tim Dee explores human relationships with the environments around us: meditations on where and how we live. His stop-start sentences sing with an eager curiosity as he writes of four very different fields, each uncommon ground for interwoven human and environmental histories.

Dee’s birdwatching background seeps through these furrowed dérives, his descriptions of place frequently picked out through bird behaviour. In the post-industrial exclusion zones around the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine, a chaffinch’s song ‘hit a tiny silver hammer on the sky’. On the dry Zambian plains, he is fascinated with the green and yellow flash of the honeyguide, a bird with cuckoo-like approach to nesting. For Dee, the honeyguide is both the trespasser and the farmer of this constantly remade landscape: profiting from the misfortune of others (the communitarian bee-eater).

At its best, this book draws on the various scales of Dee’s personal experience, a deeply lived memory of place. Seeds of uncertain radioactivity are caught in the turn-ups of his jeans and brought home to Cambridgeshire. The 19th century dispossession of the Sioux from grassland in Montana by European settlers – a conflict ‘centred on farming and fencing’ – is told through the lens of the modern-day poverty of many of their descendants.

Dee describes palimpsest landscapes, fields written over and again by human hand, and very occasionally taken back by nature. The ‘empty’ land in Zambia isn’t empty, ‘it only seems that way’. Land tenure and enclosure are frequently skirted around and occasionally addressed head on: the dispossessed communities in Montana and Zambia; the new ‘enclosure beyond enclosure’ proposed by rewilding projects in Dee’s beloved Fens.

Water is a recurring feature in Dee’s fields, whether literal or otherwise. Chernobyl’s ruined ecosystems have a ‘flatness that comes from the middle of a place… a flatness that comes out of the sea’; the accretion of human history written off the map by slow radioactive creep. In the Cambridgeshire Fens, ‘the ghost of water is everywhere – its presence, its absence, its removal and its defiance – it wetly mirrors everything dry’. Fields, for Dee, are proving grounds for human history, bound up in defined parcels of land. However, despite our best efforts to grid and girdle the world in fences and walls, self-willed nature regularly finds a way to slip back through the gaps.

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