In conversation with Tim Dee
Tim Dee is a writer and BBC radio producer. He has been a birdwatcher since he was a child. His latest book, Landfill, looks at our waste-making species through the fascinating life of gulls. Other books written by Tim include Four Fields and The Running Sky - A Birdwatching Life.
Why are you so keen on birds, and what led you to alight on gulls for your latest book?
The first birds I noticed were in the back garden of my family’s suburban Surrey home. I was about seven. Ordinary back garden birds were the wildest nature for me then. I wanted to be Gerald Durrell and wrote to him asking how I should do that. He replied - marvellously - and said don’t worry about going to Africa yet, start with the birds in your garden or the newts in a local pond or the butterflies on the school playing field. I did still want to get to Africa as soon as I could, but the birds were there and newly, magically, were wild but there, right there, in front of me. Ever since, for fifty years, I have lived my life as much through birds as anything else. Gulls became the subject of Landfill - or rather an animal good to think with - when I noticed about fifteen years that some of my gang - birdwatchers - had taken up with a group of birds not much regarded by other birders and often derided by non-birding people. What was going on, I wanted to know.
Gerald Durrell’s time capsule at Jersey Zoo contains a note to future generations, including the line: We hope that your dawns will have an orchestra of bird song and that the sound of their wings and the opalescence of their colouring will dazzle you'. I wonder what he’d make of the current state of birdlife. Landfill makes clear the connection between human behaviour and gulls - perhaps they will become much-loved if we keep up the conversation and develop a deeper sensitivity toward our shared spaces. As a birder, it must be impossible not to notice the link between us humans and all birds.
There might be – for a while at least – more gulls more visible to us and globally the gulls are not in dire straits, but so many species are. Leaving aside extinctions which Gerald Durrell was preoccupied with, we are living through a great thinning of biodiversity and the calamity is all around us. Numbers of almost all species of birds are down, some catastrophically. I know people too saddened by the scale of this loss and the resultant absences to contemplate bringing children into our world. We are doing little more than this as a species to ensure the survival of all. To be loved - to have the possibility of being loved - any life form needs to be known, to be visible enough to have entered our minds. Some species are so rare already that no one will ever be able to know them enough to love them before they are lost forever. We are all implicated and are all guilty. Still nothing like enough is being changed. Think of our generation as the last generation likely to live on the same planet as elephants and rhinoceroses and think how little we care as a species that this will most likely be the case.
Many people don't make it out to the countryside or are disconnected from nature, for reasons that are sometimes difficult to respond to. Young people often learn about wildlife only in catastrophic terms which may, I wonder, make them feel further separated or unable to do anything positive. I wonder if our own guilt, fear and skepticism is being picked up by the next generation. I was heartened by the People's Walk for Wildlife - do you think those of us that engage in such things can do more to communicate knowledge and love for wildlife as part of the everyday?
I think knowing things is where it all begins: much of the new nature writing isn’t, much of it is about the feelings that an idea of nature generates, most of the writing I see knows precious little about what it has recruited to tell its story - most of this is life writing dressed in nature. There is nothing wrong with that, but I think it does obscure the plight of the planet. I am guilty of this - making nice noises about the things I love and that see me through from the natural world but not doing anything to stem the losses. There again, that is not necessarily the job of the writer, and I would argue that species need to exist in our heart-knowledge as well as in our heads if they are to be meaningful to us. I love liverworts, but mostly I love them because actually only about 60 people in Britain really love them and very few if any of that small group would describe their relationship as loving. That way I make my noise - as with the gulls and gullers in Landfill - taking the emotional intensity that comes with close attention and deep learning and making a kind of elegy for all of us, gulls, liverworts, you and me.
During conversations with other authors, the necessity of paying close attention when in nature has been highlighted - some of this writing may be a call to action for readers, one way or another. The writer’s responsibility is discussed in political, ethical and philosophical conversations, and not a subject likely to be universally agreed upon, but it's no good carrying on like there are still plenty of sparrows. There's a stirring, though - let's hope it's come around in time. What's next for you?
Responsibility is a bastard term. There is much important and necessary writing going on today about the crisis in nature. Almost all the essential stuff seems to me to be written by scientists and is locked in scientific papers - very few more general non-fiction nature writers are able to tackle this, in Britain at least - science writing is much, much better in North America. There, people who really know things are writing well about what they know. I am a member of a gang of writers who are knickering about in this regard. I wouldn’t expect my stuff to be useful to bird conservation, but then I don’t see that as my responsibility. I try to live ethically and write ethically – I want life to endure – but I cannot do the call to arms or the emergency rescue writing. Others try. And indeed, I would argue that it is important that the life we are all agitated about saving needs to be written about in my somewhat off or adjacent way as much as in the paramedical emergency language of depletions and loss and extinctions. Look at what Keats said in a letter about a sparrow. He took part in its existence, he said, as one came pecking about the gravel at his feet. To write that seems the thing to me. I have seen many good poems recently about blackbirds; I have seen zero good ones about the 1.5-degree temperature rise that might or might not eradicate the possibility of the blackbird and us from having any shared existence. Science can be responsible; poetry must keep the heart alive in the head.
My next book is almost certainly of less value to the world than Landfill but of deeper concern to me. I am dying, like all of us, and want to be attentive to the spring now I am in the autumn of my life. It moves north through Europe at about walking pace. Knowing that, who could resist trying to keep in step with the best time of the year for as long as they could. So, I have been stretching the season from (our) midwinter in Southern Africa where our swallows and spotted flycatchers repair all the way to midsummer in Arctic Scandinavia where the same species, even the very same birds, breed under the marvellous skull-cap of twenty-four-hour daylight. This will be a book about time and trying to keep it with the rest of life; in that way, perhaps, we can talk of responsibility.
Landfill by Tim Dee is published by Little Toller Books (www.littletoller.co.uk) and is available in all good bookshops.
Image supplied by Tim, along with a line from The Blackbird of Glanmore, by Seamus Heaney: It’s you, blackbird, I love.