During Marlborough LitFest 2018 (September 27-30), Tim Dee will be talking on Saturday (September 29) about the book he has edited Ground Work: Writings on Places and People.
A lifelong birder, he works as a writer and producer for BBC Radio. He lived in Hungary when it was still Communist – studying their poetry and watching their bustards. He lived in Bristol with his partner and two sons. And is now married to a scientific ornithologist and behavioural ecologist whose work takes her to South Africa.
He has written: ‘I’ve begun to think nature writing is moribund’. And that’s a good place to start an interview with Tim Dee.
Are you arguing for more politically committed books about the parlous state in which humans are leaving nature?
“I don’t think books change the world directly – certainly not nature writing. There are plenty of calls to arms and these are important and help raise awareness and form opinions but I also think it is vital that we don’t only write about nature as a victim or as a casualty of the Anthropocene [Epoch – see below].”
“If we don’t care – emotionally and imaginatively – about it we won’t miss it when it goes. And caring doesn’t only mean feeling anxious about the vulnerability of species or ecosystems.”
“It has to include the fantastical and the dreamt up and the misidentified or barely known and the derided – all the ways nature occurs to us not just how the RSPB and other (worthy and so on) conservation organisations describe the parlous state we are in.”
“Gnashing of teeth is important but poems are too.”
You wrote a book about lessons learned from Four Fields – geographically spread across the globe. Which one left you feeling most optimistic about nature’s future?
“They all were dark zones really, I am afraid. Chernobyl is still poisoning the swallows that come to breed every year, the Crow Indians in Montana are mostly estranged from their prairie grasslands, in Zambia avian honeyguides are guiding human honey hunters to bees’ nests less and less, and in the Fens good things seem to be only happening for wildlife when the land is managed as much as when it was intensively farmed.”
“For a long time we worked the land in a sort of harmony. We seem to have lost that in the last one hundred years. It is colossally sad and tremendously frightening.”
Your book Ground Work: Writings on Places and People is a collection of diverse writings on nature by 31 authors – an idea inspired by the charity Common Ground – who are they?
“Common Ground was started in the 1980s by two remarkable women Sue Clifford and Angela King. With tiny resources they managed to change how we feel about the various and mostly very ordinary places that we all live in.”
“They gave Britain the concept of local distinctiveness. They revived the fortunes of countless apple varieties in British orchards by creating annual apple days and encouraged parish people to make maps of their home turf. They wrote manifestos for fields, woods and hedges and made internationally aspiring artists think and work locally.”
“They said the human habitat is precious and must be looked after. They had amazing success, but we still need their ideas as much as ever.”
You have been an avid birder since childhood. In Ground Work there’s a startling line in Andrew Motion’s poem, introducing a child’s view of nature: “To think the world is endless…” – how can we become optimistic about the future of our world – its endlessness – and its natural riches?
“Being outside always seems to me basically good. Looking at and learning about what is outside – and not for sale or gettable in any way – is a way to wed ourselves to the larger world.”
“Being among life that cares not for us – and ensuring that it doesn’t have to – is wonderfully enlarging. I love the way our selves shrink in the contemplation of other living things. It remains marvellous to know something of how nature works – it is equally marvellous to contemplate how joined we are to its multifariousness.”
“Darwin ended his Origin of Species contemplating the web of life on an entangled bank. We all need time on our knees before such places.”
Ground Work is about the importance to humans of place – especially place on the small scale – could you please name and describe your own favourite local place.
“It changes through each year and depending on where I am living. A local patch, as birdwatchers call it is immensely important to me.”
“This last spring I was a part time nurse to my parents who live in Minehead. Every morning before they awoke I took some respite care of my own in the temperate rainforests of Exmoor, at Horner Water and Cloutsham Ball – where the oak trees hang on steep coombe sides and are draped in epiphytic ferns and neon mosses and where, every year, a holy trinity, for me, of migrant birds fetch up out of Africa to breed: redstarts, pied flycatchers, and wood warblers.”
“They survive – though their numbers are down. Go, if you can.”
FOOTNOTE 1: the current epoch of the planet’s history has been named the Anthropocene – dating from the start of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.
FOOTNOTE 2. Tim Dee’s latest book Landfill is published this month by Little Toller Books. Its explores man’s extraordinary ways with waste – seen through the lives of sea gulls – and those who watch gulls.
Tim Dee will be speaking in the Town Hall on Saturday, September 29 at 12 noon. LitFest tickets are available: In person at The White Horse Bookshop, Marlborough High Street (cash or cheque only – from 9am). By phone to Pound Arts – 01249 701628 or 01249 712618 (from 10am). And online at Pound Arts