It’s the descriptions of birds that stay with Alex Roddie long after he’s put this ‘remarkable’ book down.
In Greenery, nature writer Tim Dee begins with a simple idea: that spring’s progress moves north at roughly walking pace. From Chad, Africa, in February, the author follows the “great inhalation of spring into Europe” all the way into Arctic Scandinavia. He explores the lives of migrant birds familiar to us in our own green land – birds that spend months every year in places very different. Honey buzzards, swallows, cuckoos, redstarts, nightjars, woodcocks and more are all characters here, and what characters they are, depicted with a deftness that only a truly passionate lifelong birdwatcher could achieve.
Although there is so much to love and learn from in this book, it’s the descriptions of birds that have stayed with me. From my own beloved nightjar – “a nightjar is a mixture of dry heath and dusty moth incarnated as a bird” – to the nightingale – “their singing comes out of the dark as some oracular utterance” – Tim Dee’s powers of description are masterful. Woodcocks are described as “made from wet mud and worms”, while tawny owls are “sleepy bags of leaves”.
But while this book celebrates nature’s glory, spring is about ending as well as beginning. What is born must die. An undercurrent of sadness, of time running out, of good things coming to an end, bubbles up throughout. The author draws our attention to the birds that die on their epic quests across oceans, the countless tiny skeletons turning to sediment on the sea bed or becoming part of the Sahara Desert. “How can we love what has gone? And how might the lost return?” The author writes with a strong and urgent recognition of his own mortality too, an awareness of passing into autumn.
This sumptuous account of spring’s progress is a truly remarkable book, written with exquisite pathos. “Everything,” Tim Dee writes, “is italicised by our looking. The wild dries quickly like dew in the sun.” So look, learn, and love.
Greenery – Journeys in the Springtime by Tim Dee is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99).
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