As with other genres, and the book itself, the death of nature writing has been pronounced variously and largely prematurely. In a recent article for Salon, Jim Hinch argues that works such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, in which authors go to the landscape to find themselves, in which they are “the object of [their] own quest,” signify these death throes perfectly. The willful abandon to “self-willed rhythms of a landscape” so beloved in the work of writers such as Dillard or Muir are cast aside in favor of a creeping narcissism. Such narratives have indeed increased in both frequency and popularity. Meanwhile, the environmentalism that creates more conventional “nature writers” has itself fractured, from deep ecology and ecofeminism to ecomodernists and Dark Mountain—the latter two representing opposite poles on a spectrum of calls for withdrawal, with the ecomodernists calling for a “decoupling” from nature facilitated by technology while Dark Mountain argues for a retreat from such technologies and myths of invulnerability that come with them.
Perhaps this is just as well. Terms such as “nature writer” and “nature writing” are largely hackneyed, ineffectual marketing terms that serve to only further alienate wary readers and reinforce the equally tired binaries of human and nature, civilization and wilderness. Fortunately, the best of those with the unfortunate luck to have such labels prescribed to their book covers resist these notions. They dwell in nature and culture and find the wild at their intersections without a reliance on anthropomorphizing or eulogizing. Tim Dee is just such an author and his book Four Fields is a fine example of our inability to escape either side of these equations.
Ostensibly, Four Fields is a study of just that, four fields in four vastly different parts of the globe: the fens near where Dee makes his home in Cambridgeshire, a former tobacco field on the edge of the Zambian savannahs, the battlefield at Little Big Horn in Montana, and a Ukrainian field near the epicenter of the Chernobyl disaster. His documentation of place oscillates between micro and macro in terms of both space and time. In these shifts, we can see the true scope of his project—from the rotting corpse of a wildebeest in which new grass grows to the wide swath of land and ocean on which the soil of the Great Plains landed during the Dust Bowl, and from the 40-second intervals Chernobyl workers were allowed to gather their data after the disaster to the deep geologic time needed to shape the ecology of the fens. Of these fields, Dee writes, “All fields are places of outlasting transience. They reset time. Each has a past but each lives in the present; each has a biography but is still a work in progress.” It is this interplay between biography and progress, simultaneously catalyzed by and indifferent to humans, to which Dee turns his keen eye.
It is his hometown fens with which Dee writes with the most love and care, creating a framework for the book made of four chapters, each digging into a season with intense lyricism. Here the “big field shine[s] its sheet of winter water once more” and winds scatter seeds in the autumn in a “silent, spreading, milky broadcast.” Dee simultaneously creates the fens’ bibliography (it is here that “pastoral literature grew up,” Dee notes, and his knowledge of the area’s literary and naturalist history is exhaustive), cartography, and a catalog of its flora and fauna. He does all this while plainly laying out a millennia of human successes in taming the fens for agriculture and successive human retreats as floods and other geologic forces held the fenmen at bay. And always in the midst of it all are birds, carefully observed, noted, and detailed parallel to the plight of their human neighbors in a manner that only a renowned birdwatcher such as Dee could manage.
There are moments when the stream of literary references and the detailed avian passages threaten to overwhelm the book, but Dee always pulls his enthusiasm back from the brink. A particularly poignant example is in the honeyguide bird he encounters in Zambia. Honeyguides are renowned for their ability to “communicate” the locations of beehives to humans in hopes that they will do the work and allow the birds to share in the honeycomb as reward. Just when the passage teeters toward sentimentality, Dee retreats and reveals that honeyguides also lay eggs in the nests of other birds so their young can feast on the other young as they hatch. It is a startling moment, and one that acts as a potent parallel for the notion of humans as simultaneously symbiotic and parasitic to the environment around them.
Dee’s documentation of land less familiar to him in the other three fields is no less powerful or complex than that of his home. As he does on the fens, his notion of the term field encompasses as much that is shaped by humans (farms, wastelands, battlefields) as it does the savannahs of Africa or the few patches of unplowed grassland within the Great Plains. In the section “Buffalo,” which deals with the landscape surrounding the Little Big Horn, he writes:
What happened, in the end was the wire. The Plains Indians who forced Custer from his horse and held him there . . . all lost everything within a few short years. Fields came from the east and with them fences. . . . The settlement and farming that followed, the opening of the West, marked an end not a beginning. At the very moment it was taken into white possession the space closed.
Ironically, the battlefield itself is one of the few wild places left on the Plains, in the sense that it has it has never been plowed and has retained its hundreds of species of grasses and other plants while the rest of the surrounding land has been pushed into monoculture, even on reservation lands.
However, it is in the next foreign field, an exclusion zone near the Chernobyl reactor, that Dee is at his best. Death haunts every field in the book. It is the ever-present companion to the vast array of frenzied life he finds on the land and in the sky. From unearthed fenmen mummified by bogs, to panicked wildebeest drowning during annual river fordings, death is always on hand. But nowhere is this so in the fore as in the eerily silent forests around Chernobyl that are so methodically working to reclaim the abandoned land from crumbling Soviet infrastructure.
Recent research into Chernobyl wildlife—particularly on wolf packs, which appear to be thriving—would suggest that this “rewilding” extends to the area’s fauna as well, with surprisingly few repercussions from constant contact with a highly toxic environs, perhaps owing to the relatively short lifespans of most species when contrasted to that of humans. But Dee takes exception to such notions and is keenly aware of both a scarcity of animal life in the zone as well as clear signs of sickness in those that are there. “In five days of walking through what some have wanted to call a resurgent wilderness I didn’t see a single mammal,” he writes. “I hardly saw a bee.” Of his beloved birds he writes, “the swallows of Chernobyl are sick. The air might be their zone but the insects they take from that air pull the birds heavily down to earth.” They show an array of disease and malformations, including cataracts, tumors, and stillborn young.
Unlike the relatively successful relationship that humans have struck with the fens over the centuries, Chernobyl and Prypiat represent for Dee all that is insidious and immediate in humankind’s ability to terrorize its environment. In what is perhaps the most stark and beautiful passage of the book, Dee lays out all that is uncanny and disorienting in the city turned fallow fields:
To stand in the forest that was once a town is to look after us. Down the wooded streets of Prypiat’s arrested past you are bowled into the aftermath of man, into a future that has already arrived. I have been nowhere else that has felt as dead as here, been nowhere that made me feel as posthumous. And the strangest thing is that in this house of the dead, the dead have gone missing. To make fuller sense of it, you would have to be an archaeologist of cities not yet built, or an interpreter of languages as yet unborn. Except, Prypiat is now and actually exists. Or was and did. And as bewildering as this is, this poisoned rewilding, it is all also bleakly appropriate to this concrete corner of the old empire.
In a gesture that is easy to overlook in a book with grand vistas and deep time, Dee leaves a postcard depicting Wicken Fen inside a derelict Prypiat apartment (it is illegal to bring anything out of the Exclusion Zone) with the simple note “Field One for Field Four” scrawled on the back. Though it is all too likely that weather and time will dismantle image and message before another visitor discovers the card, the sentiment stands in for the book at large and illustrates how Dee is further deactivating binary notions like human/nature and wild/civilized. Humans have made indelible marks upon the land, be it through swords or ploughshares, and yet the “wild” resurfaces again and again. Hard as we may try, we are not separate from the system and continuum around us. Dee’s fields show how the world survives before and after us, that no matter how foregrounded we may seem, we can become “barely part of the scenery.”