5 out of 5 stars
As we reach the peak of one season in the northern hemisphere they are at the opposite end. It was in December in South Africa, their midsummer, that Tim Dee was watching the swallows as they gathered prior to heading north to Europe in time for another midsummer half a year later.
This seasonal migration of swallows and thousands of other species is one of the wonders of our planet. Spring moves at walking pace from south to north across the landscape and that equates to about 30 miles a day. This cycle has been going on for millennia and as much as we try to destroy the planet, it will still continue for the foreseeable future.
Part of Tim Dee’s reason for wanting to follow these birds is to remain permanently in spring and summer and avoid the bleakness of winter. Beginning at 34 degrees south at the Cape of Good Hope on the 21st December he is watching barn and greater swallows moving between his house and the ocean. He is normally used to seeing them in the spring and summer at home in the UK. It is an unsettling moment. Soon they would head north. Arriving in their own time and on time in Europe, they are following the rise in temperature as it reaches an average of 10 degrees, sometimes known as the isotherm line.
It is a very different feeling to being in the UK on the same day. It is the shortest day here and the light feels fleeting. Dee watches the sunrise in Swaffham and can almost feel the earth spin on his patch of chalky soil he is standing on. Every day from now on will be longer, every day will have those extra minutes of light as the planet pivots once again.
It is the beginning of a journey that will take him up and down the continent of Africa and up into the far north of Europe, where on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, he will see swallows in midsummer. He peers from the window of a plane, hoping to glimpse a redstart marvelling how such tiny birds can cross the vast Sahara Desert, staying in Chad, he sees the resident species mixed up with those flying through and it is always slightly surreal to see a common British bird like the whitethroat nearby some African lions. March finds him back in the UK heading from Bristol to the Fens and then on to Denmark where he sees a bog body in a museum and wonders about what past cultures would do to ensure the return on the spring. At Lake Langano in Ethiopia, he is waiting for the swallow to pass through and ends up watching his favourite redstarts in the meantime.
In April heading to Ireland to talk about writing and to visit the grave of the late great Seamus Heaney and to pas his respects to the poet. There is an account of a visit to Sicily to participate in counting the birds as they fly past. Sadly this is a place where there are under attack from the residents who see these migrants as a welcome addition to the pot. Romania in May is the place to see the wallcreeper whose ability to cling onto the sheer cliffs in almost a miracle. In June we find him in the far north in Lerwick and Aarhus as well as reaching the heady latitude of Troms at 70 degrees north and watch the people in the rush hour dodge the bull reindeer and walking out in the endless day.
As the summer solstice passes he recounts the time he was in Chad and awaking to a spasm in his arm. He thought that they would pass, but they didn’t so medical advice was sought and eventually a diagnosis was given. Telling Claire is a deeply emotional moment to read about. As he reaches the autumn of his life he becomes very aware of his mortality.
This is another magnificent book by Tim Dee. He is endlessly fascinated by all of the natural world, however, his passion and obsession is with birds. He has been fortunate to travel all over the world but he has a soft spot for those birds that head to our country each year. Even though it really doesn’t matter where he sees the natural world, it could be the vast African plains, a council dump looking for gulls or listening to the snap of a beak from the spotted flycatcher through his open window he is always ready to see things that other people miss. The writing is as ever, excellent, but in this book, in particular, is as much as about him as the writing has a poignancy and urgency behind it. There is a beautiful tribute to the artist who created the cover of this book (and Landfill), Greg Poole. Having the latitude of the places in the book was a nice touch too. If you haven’t read any of his other books, then I would urge you to do so, but save this one until last.