Grave Goods – Tim Dee.

The Crossing

Tim Dee
Tim Dee.

It looks bad from where I am. I’m on some sort of river-side and waiting for a ferry. There are no birds, which is strange. The river must be wide; I can’t see the far bank. But the atmosphere suggests that a boat is due. Others are waiting too; there are quite a few people milling around. No one is keen to catch my eye, though, and there’s not much being said by the crowd, just a kind of anxious murmur. I haven’t been able to speak properly to anyone and I am not sure who is in charge. It’s turned cold, too, and feels like autumn. I don’t think it was so chilly when I left home – though, to be honest, I can’t quite remember now shutting the door or when I actually set off – but there are lots of dead leaves here blowing around my feet. And there’s a pile of different bags – suitcases, rucksacks, bin-liners and plastic carriers. Other passengers must have left them behind, or not been allowed to take them on board at the gate. I’ve flown from Stansted before. And I’ve seen on the news those pictures of bags bobbing in the surf on Greek islands. Plus, I’ve stood and looked at that room of left luggage at Auschwitz. Yet, something tells me this isn’t going to be like any of those stories. I’m not sure whether that is good or bad. I’ve got my fare – it is strange but it seems easiest to carry the money between my teeth. That’s okay – it leaves my hands free for my bags. They said pack what you need and bring it with you. Someone said that, I’m sure. There was a list of suggested items.

Poseidon’s flip flop.
Poseidon’s flip flop.

I went to Cape Wrath on a family holiday to Sutherland when I was a boy. To get there you had to cross a tidal inlet and to do that you had to shout for the ferryman. He lived on the Wrath side. My dad shouted and waved his arms until a giant appeared, rowing out of the wet day towards our family. He had a long beard, ginger streaked with grey, which flowed over the bib of his green plastic overalls with the look of muddy water. The tide was going out when we crossed and, towards the far shore, the boat dragged on the sand beneath us. The ferryman stepped over the side into the estuary – the water came up to his waist – and lifted me to his shoulders and carried me to dry land. I remember him picking me up and then putting me down. He turned around and went back for my sister. And then for my mum and then my granny. I’m not sure, now, whether he carried my dad as well. Perhaps not. Whenever I see a picture of St Christopher, I think of that ferryman. And I did again, the other day, in South Africa. I was at Malgas on the Breede River. The last ferry in the country that is pulled by hand is there. On board the pont, a line of three men, all darker skinned than me, lent towards the far bank and strained on a thick cable that ran between them and stretched across the river. They hooked themselves to it with a chain that they wore on a kind of harness over their shoulders. As each man got to the front they peeled the chain from the cable, turned and walked to the back of the boat, where they wound their chain to the cable again and dragged on. It was a bit like that Escher drawing of the endless staircase. We sat in our car being pulled across and I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. The men are proud of their work and earn a living from it, but I have never felt so close to being in a scene from the Inferno

Maybe this ferryman I am waiting for now knows those others. Is there a Union of Ferry Operatives? None of them ever seem to say much. These crossings are often new territory for their passengers; I, for one, am always curious to chat about where we are going, but I guess they’ve already done the journey many times, and so, mostly, they just look ahead.

Arnold Boecklin - Island of the Dead, Third Version
Arnold Boecklin – Island of the Dead, Third Version

Tools of the Trade – a tool/implement without which you’d be lost, whether it’s a pen, trowel, notepad, bottle-opener or scanning electron microscope.

Eschew baggage for the expedition is brief – I wear a T-shirt that says that. The words are from a poem by Peter Reading. I’d like to live by such a motto, but I’ve got a lot of bags.

I write mostly about what happens to people (to me and to others) when they make contact with wild life or landscapes or what Henry David Thoreau called the hard matter of the universe. I’ve been a birdwatcher for fifty years and it is birds that have given me much of my sentimental education. Watching them – their hard matter is actually a strong softness – has taught me how to feel the working of the world and to be able at times to go with its grain. I see through them; they see me through.

Ostrich tracks on a South African beach.
Ostrich tracks on a South African beach.

Birdwatching is best done, obviously, by getting as close to birds as is possible. I’ve spent a lot of my half-century sitting in hides, pretending I wasn’t there. But I have come to feel that such concealments (blind, the American term for a hide, is especially telling) are really non-places, antechambers to reality and distorters of its truth: nothing seen from them ever seems as real as it does in the open air. A better means of getting up close is magnification. That also has problems regarding loss of feeling: the world, seen through lenses held to your eyes, even though it is brought closer, steps away from you, and you from it. But, at least, as you are watching, wind blows in your ears and sleet pings on your cheeks – you are out there in the world. And since birds mostly don’t want to know us, and seek to fly away as soon as anything they are not sure about comes too close, my required trade-tools (aka instruments for feeling) are magnification machines: binoculars (10x) and a telescope (40x). Outdoors, without them, I feel undressed. In my town bag, I carry a pair of mini-bins for observations when on non-bird business. Perhaps they make me look a twerp when I take them out to watch parakeets in Hyde Park, but so be it. Once, on a wintry London day, I saw a flock of eight lapwings flying over Trafalgar Square. I spotted them – when the naked eye is the first optic the encounter is always better (deeper, richer) – and then looked up with my (8x) minis, beyond Nelson with his one arm and one eye, to where the birds were, hurrying south, instructing me about the weather to come – a snow-storm, which duly arrived ten minutes behind them.

Counting ducks aged seven at a Surrey pond, I learned that the man who took what he called his fieldglasses from their leather case was not a proper birdwatcher. He put his gear away as he readied to leave. He was what I would later have called, with my hardcore twitching friends, a dude. Watching birds was a risky enough calling – so many times the tits and the bird-lover jokes come and go – but I certainly didn’t want to be a dude. Bins were the mainstay of my kit.  And were always worn.

Emily Dickinson was a great looker, but she predates binoculars. A poem of hers speaks to this:

Faith is a fine invention

For Gentlemen who see

But microscopes are prudent

In an Emergency!

Elizabeth Bishop, another excellent bird poet, knew her lenses. The world is a mist, she wrote in ‘Sandpiper’, And then the world is / minute and vast and clear.  That might describe a focussing down and some manipulation of the depth of field. She must have had a pair of binoculars of her own. She once worked with them – she told Anne Stevenson so in a letter of 1964.

 I did work in the Optical Shop in the Key West Submarine Base for a very short stretch during the war … Cleaning & adjusting binoculars mostly … I liked it, but had to leave because I was allergic to the acids used for cleaning the prisms.

It is worth thinking about the impact of magnification on the imagination as well as on natural history. Binoculars replaced the need to shoot birds to get close enough to them to identify them. What did they do to poetry? I’ve asked who the first poet was in whose bird poetry we can detect the binocular – assisted looking. There is a photograph of Edward Thomas with a pair of binoculars round his neck: I think he was likely the first poet to have them. Thinking of that underlines the extraordinary visual acuity of John Clare one hundred years before Thomas. Clare had no magnification of any kind, but wrote of more birds than any other poet, before or since. He added, through his poems, dozens of first records to the Northamptonshire county list, and he made field observations (of the constituent parts of a yellowhammer’s nest, for example), that predate but anticipate the accuracy and data gathering of subsequent naturalists. With a pair of binoculars, Edward Thomas had the equipment that Clare didn’t need, but in Thomas’ poetry we don’t yet feel the zoom-effect. For that, I think, we have to wait for Ted Hughes. His demon thrushes stalking a back-garden lawn, like feathered dinosaurs, surely owe their terrifying existence to having been seen down a magnifying set of lenses.

Male Goldcrest. Gail Hampshire. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Male Goldcrest. Gail Hampshire. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

I said the wind in my ears. That’s not quite right. For the last few years my hearing in one ear has been flannelled to near-nought. I now wear an aid and it must be admitted as another tool of my trade. Today, thanks to the NHS, I can hear more of my wife, but also I can just about get goldcrests again. The tiny birds – the smallest in Europe – have a tiny song, high-pitched and fuse-wire thin. Recent surveys of the bird in Britain were reporting a decline, until it was realised that most bird-surveyors were people older than fifty and were likely to be missing the birds’ calls.  My friend Rose Ferraby is not a birdwatcher really, but proved very useful as a human hearing aid on a recent spring trip to the reedbeds of Wicken Fen when she was able to guide me to a invisible high-pitched reeling Savi’s warbler. Similarly, my wife, Claire, is 200 metres ahead of me on calls. A goldcrest exists for her when it doesn’t for me; correspondingly her world is shaped differently to mine. That is worth thinking about.

A different sort of tool is writing itself. It must always be remembered that nature’s writing is not nature-writing, but I am keen to try to get what I see (and hear) down in words that both do justice to the life-form itself or topography or moon-phase or sunset etcetera AND to what I make of it. I’m keen on what Coleridge called both the outseeing and the inseeing. The words matter, but they must also imply an understanding that they are not like the matter of what they describe, and that there is no (or should be no) getting or spending of the world, as Wordsworth said. It cannot be fully owned in language. Approach, attention, engagement (contact was Thoreau’s word), and retreat: these must be the stations of the nature-writing cross. Kathleen Jamie’s poems do this memorably and beautifully and I try to emulate them in my prose. Attention to detail is a species of love: what you look hard at seems to look hard back at you said Gerard Manley Hopkins. He also said when once looking hard at an outdoors scene, I could feel my eye growing. That is what I try to write about.

Food for the Journey – a favourite portable snack, or a portion of something from your funeral feast.

When Coleridge was packing his bags to leave Britain for the Mediterranean in 1804, he made a list of things he needed. It included a coat to sleep in, a pair of green-tinted proto-sunglasses, pencils, mustard and what he called portable soup.  When D.H. Lawrence was travelling to some of the same Mediterranean islands in 1921, he packed what he called his kitchenino, a kind of travelling buttery. Writing about the spring moving through Europe, when I made similar north-south-north journeys in the company of both those northern writers, I packed a picnic whenever I could that I had learned about in South Africa from my South African wife.

There’s a bird in the Cape area of South Africa called a familiar chat. It comes happily around people. When the Boer trekkers were moving with their ox-wagons, they spotted the chats and named them spekvreters – fat-eaters. The birds were coming close to feed on the animal grease that the travellers had applied to their wagon wheels to ease their progress into what they hoped was the promised land.

Fat dries fast in South Africa. The country remains good for dry nourishment. Various, still common, foodstuffs date from a time without cold-storage when necessarily portable edibles met a hot and mostly dry, and drying, climate. Biltong is probably the best known. I don’t like it – there is too much of a suggestion of a desiccated corpse, and woody filaments of the meat get stuck between my teeth. Preserved fruits are much better. Sometimes they come in still recognisable forms: there are wonderful pears that look like Van Gogh’s ear, but taste like dried heaven. Sometimes the fruit is rolled into a kind of sweet roofing-felt that you can unroll and nibble on as you go; guava makes an especially good carpet of this sort. Then there are rusks, which can seem like old toast being passed off as something good, but which get tastier each morning you are away from home. They are dust or sand made edible, but the buttermilk in them will drive you and your wagon onwards wherever you are heading.

In the absence of my Cape Town kitchenino, I buy honey wherever I go. I once, almost accidentally, spent a winter in Budapest during the communist times. There was pitifully little fresh food. People lived off things they had preserved in bottles, but I had nothing saved. I began taking honey as a cold-weather medicine. Ever since then, wherever I go, I have sought out jars of the gloopy sweetness fixed from sunlight. I like the idea of eating the previous spring. I like the idea of redrafting the carbon cycle as an edible equation. I like the taste. And, should it be needed one day, it will be good to have to hand for stopping my ears.

For related reasons – a desire to taste the terroir and the seasons past of a place, as well as to forget all pressing troubles – I ask for schnapps or grappa or pálinka or slivovitz or akvavit or marc or orujo, or whatever the local fruit-drenched spirit, or grape by-product, or general de-fragging mind-wiper is on offer. The fact that there is nothing really equivalent to this to be drunk in England might serve as a definition of the country and of its impoverishment. There is cider, I suppose, and more might be said of that, except the drunkenness that comes from rotten apples tends towards the deep forgetting of the waters of Lethe.

Memento Vivere – a memento of a companion/event to bring you cheer (can be an image).

To be married to someone who wants to be outdoors and look at birds even more than I do has been the best thing. The fact that she is a biologist and that, therefore, ecological facts are what she works on, is wonderfully challenging to my feeling-led, emotional, romantic, subjective and more generally giddy takes on wildlife. When we were dating, Claire told me that the only thing she knew to be true in life was that natural selection operates on all of it. It wasn’t a chat-up line, but I couldn’t resist. All the poets I love, the soft non-fiction writers like me, the bad naturalists, the amateurs, fantasists and dreamers, the scientifically flabby novelists, musicians, and filmmakers, all might be properly put on their mettle by being admitted into the company of a mind like Claire’s. It has been tremendously good for me.

Nothing I see now that she doesn’t, feels quite enough.  If I travel without her, birdwatch, botanise, strandloop, the experience is invariably thinner than it is when she is there: she is my magnification in this way, and my energy-biscuit, my vitamins, and my field guide, and she dowses it all for me.

One of the good things about getting old is that there is a good chance that most experiences you have build on experiences you already have had – you might already have been to a place or already have seen a bird. There is also the possibility that you have read or heard of other observers’ experiences in that same place or of those same birds. To carry these pasts with you – your own and others’ – enhances the present. In any field, I like human depth as much as the spread of the green acres themselves. Nature without human knowledge or human culture is less interesting.  It invariably will speak to us less and it will therefore be less easy to fight for or to save. Species locked down only with scientific names struggle to exist for most of us. The dodo will always be more alive than a dinosaur because no one was around to give the dinosaurs a common name. Carrying that baggage for the wild is one way we live with it; it can be bad news for nature sometimes, but it is the signature of our species; we are fallen from the teeming continuum of life, but the song we sing of our separation is one of the best things our species still does.

There are countless examples of this. I’ve just been watching southern Cape gannets from the upstairs window of our house on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. They are very similar to the northern gannets I know from Europe. The bird as seen doing its thing in the wild (battling oceanic weather, sheathing the sea in its plunge-dives, etc.) can, nonetheless, only get better – bigger, more alive to us, more themselves to themselves even – when we know Ian Dury’s ‘Billericay Dickie’:

I had a rendezvous with Janet
Quite near the Isle of Thanet
She looked more like a gannet
She wasn’t half a prannet
Her mother tried to ban it
Her father helped me plan it.

Ex Libris – the book or text you are least likely to tire of reading.

Wherever I am going there is almost certainly a field guide to the birds. Such books are passports to every place. In the 1980s, I wrote a book on the status and distribution of the endemic birds of Madagascar. I didn’t go to the island then and all my data were fetched from either dead birds in museum collections, or ancient natural history papers written by various long-dead colonial types. There was at that time no field guide to the country’s birds. And what I wrote was basically a book of its dead. The birds existed only as faded skin-specimens and black type on Victorian pages. A few years ago, I went to Madagascar for a first visit. Raising some of the birds into life and colour and song was a thrilling experience. Nowadays, there are excellent field guides. These are books of life. No one need have a monochromatic mesite or coua any longer, all the vangas are illustrated, all the asities, all life is shown on the go, even if imperilled, and anyone so minded might live from such things.

I like facts about birds, but I also like books that use facts in singular ways. In the village next to the one where I sometimes live in the Cambridgeshire Fens, there was a Victorian clergyman called Leonard Jenyns. He wrote what was called A Naturalist’s Calendar to his parish, Swaffham Bulbeck. It’s a list of species – plants, butterflies, birds etc. – and a list of dates when they first bloomed or took wing or sang. It is nothing more than a list, but it manages to say everything that is needed, and its cumulative effect is to make Jenyns into a singer (in plain speech) of a song of the earth. I’ve often thought that I could bivouac in such a book for a year, or that, should I finally be jailed for inappropriate birdwatching (those parakeets…), I would beg to be allowed to take such a book into prison with me, thereby being able to live vicariously from it, getting in my sky-less confinement all my greens, all my daylight, all my seasons.

I think of many poets as being like Jenyns. They look closely at life, thereby disturbing meaning, as Osip Mandelstam said poets must; they tell the truth of the world, but they tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson advised. If there is a family tree already in what I have suggested above, the book of pure facts being related to the book of extrapolated facts, then I think I would add a book of poetry to the growing tips of any such great rooted blossomer. The twentieth century American poet Robert Johnson is not well known, but I shout for his The Book of the Green Man whenever I can. Published in 1967, it draws on a journey through Britain that Johnson took and on his deep reading of old nature poets, romantic writers, Gilbert White, and many others. It is an extraordinary sequence quite unlike anything else: visionary, hallucinogenic, crammed with scintillating seeing, but also quietly and beautifully fixed with precise and located looking. No one I know has travelled in words so brilliantly: between old eyes that looked and learned and old eyes that dreamed and imagined, and the possibility of there being still new eyes wanting to know how others saw, and to see for themselves what was and what is still to be seen.

Lucky Disposition – a bonus selection chosen by the guest – can include transport.

My grown-up children enjoyed a book when they were little called Morris’ Disappearing Bag by Rosemary Wells. An awkward young rabbit finds his feet by being able to climb into a bag that is invisible and makes him the same. We might be back to the birdwatchers’ hide, which I have said I am against, but Morris’ bag would be useful in my life. Coleridge and Goethe, both tourists to Sicily, had use of comparable items to get by on their travels. Goethe seems to have been able to sleep in a leather bag he borrowed from a friend, while Coleridge knew that his greatcoat had a hood that made it into an all-season bivvy bag. My wife, Claire, grew up dreaming of an everything-proof-suit, partly to survive apartheid South Africa, perhaps, partly to get close to the birds she loved. Sylvia Plath wrote a children’s book called The It-Doesn’t-Matter-Suit. That makes for good armour too.

There is a wonderful document by the novelist Stendhal that records his deepest desires or his secret wishes. It is both funny and sad. The list includes requests for cash-bonanzas, for instant and heroic priapism, for the knowledge of what women are thinking, for a bullet-proof vest, and for designated occasions when he might stop rivals and enemies in their tracks. It also asks for an understanding of the talk of animals, for invisibility, for some time-travel, and for flight.

It is that last desire to which I always come back. In some ways, a lifetime of looking at birds has been me asking the same. I’m too scared to base-jump or hang-glide – surely we are not made for those barely controlled falls? I did once dare to ride as a passenger in a glider, and felt our plane latch on to rising air and take a thermal stair, having been shown where the good sky was by a pair of buzzards. But, I wonder whether the reason I don’t dream of flying – I don’t fly in my sleep – is because I look so often at those that do.

A Message from Beyond the Grave – an entirely discretionary option – leave a note for a future generation to find.

Be kind. Know that the Earth would look after you, if only you would attend to it.  Stay on it, stay in touch. Years ago, I saw a man kill himself by jumping from a high bridge into the company of birds that could cope with the territory into which he was trespassing. That taught me a lot about our place on Earth.

I wrote Landfill, a book about gulls and rubbish, with the words to ‘I Threw It All Away’ by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash on my mind. I have written Greenery with other sounds pressing in, most of all the wildtrack of the world itself. When I was a radio producer, wildtrack was the sonic substrate of everywhere; you gathered it to help smooth-out your interviews. It was wind, it was rain, it was sea-wash, it was birdsong. As I have got older, and more misanthropic perhaps, certainly more aware of the end of things, it is wildtrack rather than the voices on top of it, to which I really want to pay attention, bringing the backdrop to the foreground and making what is passing present. And I want to hear the wildness of the wildtrack too. I want to know what we’ve got before it goes (or before we send it packing). Think of the lost voices of the golden toad and the thylacine, the dodo and the moa, the passenger pigeon, the eskimo curlew, the huia and the giant coua, and the elephant bird. I have one good ear only and everything that is dead is so quiet. Let us listen while we can.

Down here, at the edge of the river, the sedge is withered and no birds sing. Now it is autumn is how D.H. Lawrence began his poem ‘The Ship of Death’.  This must be the place where I was expected, but I don’t like it.


Tim Dee was born in Liverpool in 1961. He grew up there, in Cheshire, South London and Bristol. He studied at Cambridge and Budapest universities. His first work was researching the threatened birds of Africa and the endemic birds of Madagascar. His first book was about the latter. Later he worked for Save the Children and then, for three decades, as a BBC radio producer. He now lives in three places: Bristol, the Cambridgeshire Fens and Cape Town. He has two grown-ups sons and a new baby boy. The Running Sky, a memoir of his birdwatching life, was published in 2009. Four Fields appeared in 2013 and Landfill in 2018. He is also the editor of Ground Work (2018), a collection of new writing about place, and the co-editor (with Simon Armitage) of The Poetry of Birds (2009). Greenery: Journeys in Springtime will be published in 2020.


2 thoughts on “Grave Goods – Tim Dee.”

    1. HR

      Thank you Steven – plenty more on the way. Don’t forget there’s a podcast too.

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