Review published on April 17, 2015. Reviewed by Stephen Joyce
Nudge Reviewer Rating:
‘They are works of learning and knowledge, but they are made from such a mixed unfixed place and in such a mixed unfixed way, that they are perfect fen books.’
So writes Tim Dee near the end of Four Fields, a book primarily about the soggy fenlands near Cambridge where Dee lives but ranging across three other fields in Africa, the American mid-West, and Chernobyl. But it is to the fens that Dee continually returns and therein lay my problem with the book. While it’s evocatively written, rich in description and metaphor, it is a mixed unfixed book which fails to generate any sustained interest.
I understand that the mixed unfixed form was Dee’s point, that the book is the literary equivalent of a ramble through the countryside, but however hard the writer works to create the sensory impressions of nature a book simply isn’t the equivalent of a hike and a non-fiction book with neither a story nor an argument probably won’t hold the reader’s attention.
It’s a shame, because there are many good points about Four Fields. The writing is elegant and lovingly descriptive, particularly when it comes to birds (Dee is a keen birdwatcher and has previously published The Running Sky: A Birdwatching Life). Writing of a redstart in Chernobyl, Dee notes its “silvered back and warm red tail trembled against the scabby bark of the branch.” In Namibia a chat “is intensely drab, soft dusty brown throughout, except for a warmer brown tail, the part of itself that it does not see.” In the wet fens the word ‘slub’ is used to describe the thick mud that covers the earth and “Holme Fen now is thick with sickly looking silver birches that thin at their tops to scratchy headaches.”
For a while, it’s nice to read such precise descriptions of the land and the animals within it, but without any narrative thread it starts to become wearying. The book’s more interesting passages occur when Dee narrates the histories of the four fields in question, how Custer died in Montana and how the Crow Indians now live, how nature has reclaimed Chernobyl inside the Exclusion Zone, how the fens inspired Wordsworth and Ruskin. This is a book which encourages the reader to dip in and out and find interesting sections.
But the parts never really cohere. If the overall subject of the book is the mutual interdependence of humanity and nature, then it never really establishes that. There are interesting bits of history. There are loving descriptions of nature next to them. All of these occur in the same place. But the impact of both on each other is never established so no argument ever emerges other than that it’s nice to observe the natural world in places marked by human developments.
This isn’t a bad message, but it’s not an argument and without a personal narrative to stitch the different sections of the book together it becomes a shapeless collection of interesting objects, a menagerie rather than an eco-system. Four Fields is an interesting idea for a book, and it’s very well-written, but it never quite overcomes its mixed unfixed structure and ultimately fails to engage the reader’s attention consistently.