Greenery describes many mostly bird-related trips made by Tim Dee around springtime. Being hopelessly and unashamedly parochial, I’d assumed the book would be set in the UK, but I was mistaken. Although Dee does indeed describe numerous vernal encounters in Blighty, the majority of this book is spent following spring migrations in Africa and continental Europe. It is a much better book for that.
Dee certainly gets around. Among the places he visits are South Africa (where he now lives for part of the year), Belgium, Chad, Denmark, Ethiopia, Hungary, Gibraltar, Ireland, Italy, Heligoland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Shetland, Estonia, Latvia, Kenya, Iceland, and Norway.
Not only is Dee remarkably well travelled, he is also remarkably well read. Greenery is packed full of literary and poetic observations. I even spotted three cryptic references to Captain Beefheart lyrics, and, at one point, began to wonder whether Dee might be channelling the late, great W.G. Sebald:
In the autumn of 1986, I moved from Britain to Budapest to study Hungarian poetry for a year. Within weeks I was feeling cold and alone. Never, before or since has my breath been so continuously visible. Never has it dropped to the ground so uncared for by anyone else. A girlfriend I had miraculously found in England after several monkish years came to visit six weeks after I had started in Hungary. I showed her the covered market on the bank of the Danube and the mushroom doctor there who would vet your harvest for toxic species; I showed her a rough-legged buzzard. But we had already lost our touch and gone wrong. Walking together along the Danube and into its hills, through wet meadows in the autumn’s dripping mist, we could have spoken to one another as if in a hushed room. We didn’t, and she didn’t quite have the nerve to finish with me then. We had to do that over a weekend of failed telephone talk once she’d gone back to England; me trying to ration my increasingly desperate steps to the call box at the metro station and then, red-eyed and winded, kneeling to the floor of my landlady’s corridor, weighed down by the heavy black handset she’d let me borrow for one final call, and stunned by the cool voice in it coming with the surge of a dead sea, from the far side of the moon.
I thoroughly enjoyed Greenery. On reflection, I particularly appreciated its internationalism. The bird migrants arriving in the UK each spring, as April showers fall and sweet bulbs grow in our gardens, have all come from somewhere. Dee wonderfully conveys how ‘our’ birds also belong to many other countries—albeit sometimes only fleetingly.