Flights of Imagination
Sophie Poklewski Koziell is bewitched by the originality with which this author writes about birds. The Running Sky: A Birdwatching Life by Tim Dee. Jonathan Cape, 2009. ISBN: 9780224081986
The Running Sky is a rich read. It is a distillation of 40 years of passionate birdwatching, which took the author, Tim Dee, from a “hard-core and obsessed” professional birder to a more sensitive place of appreciation.
The book starts in June, in the full flight of the year, marvelling at the wheeling performance of a seabird colony on a Shetland cliff. Each chapter is based on a month of the year, a loose structure that allows Dee to pull in his experiences from his many moons of quiet watching. Most of these are close to home – cuckoos and woodcocks, Wicken Fen and Chew Valley Lake – but, thanks to his travels as a BBC radio producer, he occasionally gets to gaze at skies further afield.
Dee’s passion has remained the same throughout his life, but his interpretation has gently shifted from dry scientific observation to vivid poetic description. Take this entry by the teenage Dee listening to nightingales: “21st May 1977 Ingelstone Common, Gloucestershire; wind: light southerly force 2–3; 22:30 Nightingale: 3H [heard]”. He admits that this “anti-poetic minimalism” eventually didn’t work for him; perhaps it was partly an inheritance of the style from the ornithological community, partly teenage gaucheness. From this time on, he hung out with professional birdwatchers, whilst on the sly he began to indulge himself in the literary and poetic heritage of birdwatching (John Clare, J.A. Baker, Gilbert White, John Keats). The fusion of these two strands in Dee’s life produced an astonishing quality of description; so that 30 years on, he writes with enviable originality and expressiveness. He describes the wren caught in his hand as “an energetic walnut” and comments on its “midget roundness”. A pied wagtail is “cheeping open its orange gape”. A goldcrest’s call is “fuse-wire thin”. He digs deep into language, and rolls it out, infused with reverence and rhythm.
You feel like you’re in the presence of a sensitive, expressive genius; but ‘genius’ is a lazy word. It insinuates that things come easily. But it is clear that Dee has worked at it all. He strives to push his imagination, to see ‘deeply’ and then to describe. Sometimes he admits defeat at attempting to comprehend, let alone describe, the wonders before him. For instance, watching a gathering of starlings on the Somerset Levels, he writes, “To describe the flock is like trying to hold on to a dream in daylight – it slips from me, it cannot be summoned except in fragments, and they cannot be transcribed”.
So Dee’s romantic appreciation has blossomed, but the book could not survive without his younger self’s obsession for fact-finding and list-ticking. It is knowledge that provides the backbone to the poetry. He can draw out a story from one lone encounter with a bird; imagining a life, a nest, a migration, a death. “The redstart is quivering its tail on the worn carpet of lichen that covers the top of the dry-stone wall at Kennaby. A month from now it will do it from an acacia branch in the savannah belt south of the Sahara in western Africa. Next spring it will do it at the edge of its breeding hold in a tree fresh in leaf anywhere from Spain to the far north of Russia.”
Dee takes his reader on a flight of imagination but a flight which is also grounded in truth. He also has a gift for highlighting the miraculous in the everyday obvious: “A few weeks before, many of them had been eggs”, or “A nest is the sole fixture of a bird’s life. It marks the longest joining of a bird to a single place.”
This is not a book about Tim Dee, but a book about Tim Dee’s life of birds. However, there is a natural merging, so within the passages examining and exalting the life of birds, there are small inferences as to who he is, who he became, and the becoming. From a three-year-old being lifted up, and creeping his fingers over the rim of a swallow’s nest, to collecting his first dead bird, aged four – “a dunnock’s tiny chalky skull”.
Occasionally I get the feeling that Dee is doing some gentle exorcism on the side. In a chapter dense with peregrines and J.A. Baker, we are watching the skydiving stoops of these killers over the Avon Gorge in Bristol. Then, as if it can’t be helped, the peregrines recede and we are witnessing a family break-up. Dee’s family break-up. You see a boy turning away from the crisis and hurt and becoming buried in birds. In another chapter he revisits Fair Isle, where he’d spent a previous September “at the threshold of adulthood”, immersed in the migrants, vagrants and weather systems. You sense that this remote off-shore community has acted as a port in the storm for Dee as well as for the island’s feathered visitors.
I like this strong sense of the author – of Dee – because it gives another dimension to the book. He knows that the reader is seeing and hearing through his senses and interpretations, and he is unapologetic in refusing to play the cold, objective ornithologist. However, it is clear that he doesn’t want to get in the way: he manages to keep a fine balance of unobtrusive presence.
In the introduction, Dee comments “I am not a professional bird man now.” That little aside, plus a chapter on John Buxton and John Clare, is a big clue to where Dee’s philosophy now lies. It describes the gulf between the professional and the amateur, science and poetry. On one hand, there’s the history of ornithological reference books, one of which Dee describes as “a neurotic encyclopaedic terminus that erects a barrier in the mind”; on the other, the romantic poets. Then, in the middle, Dee and Buxton.
Dee says of Buxton, “He wanted to be an amateur because he knew the etymology of the word, that an amateur is a lover, and that his love for his redstarts lay at the heart of his experience of them”. That is why I believe Dee moves away from the professional. He sums the whole debate up beautifully in the following few lines: “Science makes discoveries when it admits to not knowing, poetry endures if it looks hard at real things. Nature writing, if such a thing exists, lives in this territory where science and poetry might meet. It must be made of both; it needs truth and beauty.”
The Running Sky is a bridge for me, from the Guide to British Birds lying unopened on my shelf, to the birds outside my window. One is dry and necessary, but wholly unenticing (for me); the other is alive, but somehow a mystery beyond my reach. This book, with its bewitching language and depth of knowledge, has already enriched my looking. One of my favourite lines is in the Afterword: “In November 1971, when I was 10, a girl kissed me for the first time. I couldn’t kiss her back – a mistle thrush got between us.” It tickled me, this scene of a boy not yet in the mood for love, his life so far tightly wrapped up in birds. Then a few days later, I was on the telephone to my sister, entwined in her day and stories, when my attention was snatched by a glimpse of red in the hedge. In that instant, my mind pulled out of the conversation and was solely focused on “Is that a bullfinch?”
In that instant, I understood.