Spring moves north at about walking pace." One December, after watching swallows in midsummer South Africa, Dee was inspired to follow their trajectory north, from their winter quarters in the southern hemisphere, through their staging posts in Chad and Ethiopia, across the colossal Sahara and on to greening, springtime Europe. As well as keeping company with the birds, he meets people for whom spring is a crucial season: a Smi reindeer hunter, a Norwegian chronobiologist, and an Egyptian taxi driver. I love all Dee's writing but I especially warmed to this.
It’s somewhat awkward, amid a general and justified hubbub regarding the need for new voices in nature writing, to find that Tim Dee – middle-aged, white, male – is producing some of the most exciting and ambitious work in the genre. What, after all, is this book for? What good will it do, here in the depths of the climate crisis, of the sixth great extinction? It’s no call to arms, no manifesto; it does not go in especially hard on environmental issues. It won’t save the world. But it’s the sort of book that, in its expressive power, its creativity, the richness of its humanity, might make the world worth saving.
‘Get on with the nature stuff, Tim!’ I wanted to shout at times, because when it comes to chronicling the natural world his writing is a delight, both elegant and evocative.
Watching a group of Bewick’s swans flying overhead, he comments memorably that they look like ‘a washing line of creamy sheets in the northern sky.’
This charming, meandering and occasionally frustrating book ends with a completely unexpected double whammy, which had me first wiping away tears and then smiling in delight.
It’s a reminder that, however grim things look, there is always the freshness and rebirth of spring to look forward to.
Ardent, playful, quietly subversive – this is how Dee has always written, but his originality and learning mean he never needs to resort to the devotional swooning that has always plagued writing about the non-human world. There are interludes when the air is released from the prose and the book loses its vernal bounce, but a few longueurs feels like a fair exchange for that steampunked woodcock or, say, the near-hallucinatory observation that “the way an ants’ nest seethes is congruent with the way a wryneck moves”.