Dee, T. 2013 Four Fields Jonathan Cape

Dee, along with Richard Mabey, is one of our finest naturalist writers; his first book The Running Sky was a superb meditation on bird-watching, as was, in a different way, the anthology he edited with Simon Armitage of The Poetry of Birds. He is incapable of writing a dull sentence about an animal: he sees the “jewelled toolkit of a kingfisher” flash past or notes how “hares moved off stiff-backed with their odd, humping limp. Their long hind legs afflict them with a kind of virile disability, as if to walk were always more taxing than to run.” A rook is a “photographic negative of a seagull”.
Hugh Thomson writing in The Independent

Tim Dee is a man deeply concerned with birds and their habitats, with poetry, music and literature, voice and communication. Dee’s first book, The Running Sky – was an autobiography of a birder – his second is a work of ardent focus.

“What follows here is an attempt to say some more about the fields in my life; to understand why these four fields mean as much to me as they do and how they have given me the sentimental education, the heart’s journey, that they have; to explore what they have meant to others; to discover the common ground they make, the midfield; to walk and work them in the only way I know, to name their birds and to read their words; to remember their other workers, their makers, mappers, gleaners, fighters; to count their flowers and to smell them; to link wild fields to factory fields; to argue that the most meaningful green squares might be the most banal, the most beautiful meadow the most ruined; to learn how they all work and how they all fail; to find the future of some in their past and, in others, their present enduring through change; to dive into their grass and sneeze alive, to lie in their grass and feel it a grave; to enlist every acre.”
Tim Dee

Four Fields, combines history, geography, science, literature and experience. It’s a meditation on habitats that Dee has known around the world.

I’d looked forward to this book and wondered how Dee might maintain my interest for 278 pages on something as seemingly banal as fields. It’s Dee’s ability to notice that’s astonishing;

“The next day, in the inch of spring sun, the plough-pressed ridges of turned soil along the bare fields shone like fish-scale, and the water in the lodes rainbowed with clay oils: some marrow was moving again through the buttery land beneath the peat.”


Four Fields is effectively four books and seeks connections between them. He says “fields offer the most articulate description and vivid enactment of our life here on earth, of how we live both within the grain of the world and against it”. They are “the greatest land art on the globe”. Dee likes fields!

Four Fields is a travel book, a naturalist’s journal and a cultural examination that returns home every season to the author’s home-field, in The Fens. Initially Dee saw The Fens, as surrendered, farmed flat and drained, but he learned to look closer, drawn by the birds into the drama played out between humans, water and land.

“Their unemphatic mundanity makes them (still, as it always has) into a place where a kind of negative capability of landscape operates. Where less is more. Where the landscape itself is thin but the weather is wide. Where the prospects are so low that small things loom tall. Where you might mistake a windmill for a giant. Where things are so boring they become interesting.”
Tim Dee

It’s his lyrical, natural and seasonal history of the Fens, his “unfinished” landscape, that engrossed me the most, less so his foreign fields. Not because the quality of his writing faltered on leaving our shores but because my own parochial tastes caused me to linger in Fenland rather than Masai Mara, Little Big Horn battlefield or Chernobyl.

The fields he visits are unfrequented places and they inspire unfrequented emotions, and I enjoyed being shown around by someone who sees things this feelingly: “For grey weeks in winter the whole day is tilted towards its end”; “There were leaves coming like new mouse-ears on the apple trees”; “A barn owl, a giant chaff-coloured moth, floated through the thick light, working the harvest corduroy for its trembling animals”
Amy Leech writing in The Observer


Four Fields is an enthralling and unexpected book about what we have made of the natural world. The language is rich and loamy. There is evidence of much thought here, as well as a naturalist’s profound observation.

Further Reading:
Kathleen Jamie’s review in The Guardian. Kathleen Jamies’ Sightlines is reviewed HERE.
Amy Leach’s review The Observer
Hugh Thomson’s review in The Independent. Hugh Thomson’s ‘The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England’ is reviewed HERE.

Olivia Laing’s review in the New Statesman


2 thoughts on “Book Review: Four Fields by Tim Dee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s