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Book Review: A Year on the Wing, by Tim Dee

reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
A Year on the Wing Tim Dee book review

Tim Dee has the eye of a birder and the ear of a poet; if you love birds and words you’ll love this book. The novelist Martin Amis once said that if you mark the notable passages of a book in the margins, the perfect book would have lines written on every page. Dee’s work comes perilously close to this standard; by “perilously” I mean it is sometimes almost too much. Here is a passage on the calls of petrels: “It is an inward and sibylline sound of swazzle notes and speaking stones. It giggles and rewinds. It clucks and purrs. It sounds like a simultaneous possession and exorcism.”

When he is a little more modest, I like it even better. Speaking of a dying nightjar, he says, “Feathers fall from it like ashes from a burned-out fire…. Its plumage [is] a fabulous mix of silver, grey, orange, and brown, like the woven patterning of the underside of the world or a carpet containing everything of the earth.”

Not that this book is all poetry; it is replete with astonishing scientific facts. For example, he speaks of a banded 22-yearold knot whose lifetime migration miles totaled 435,000—the distance to the moon and back.

He acts as well as sees, and recognizes the atavistic roots of pursuits like birding. Of bird banding he writes, “Trapping birds is like being able to see inside their heads or being able to understand their speech…. Some old hunter in me is thinking of his supper, then an even older shamanic frisson stirs; we have called down these creatures from their skies and delved into the dark of their migrations.”

The structure of A Year on the Wing is built around seasons and migrations, starting in June and ending in May. This makes arrival, departure, and migration the book’s major themes and the themes of Dee’s life as well. “Human adventures are what my life has been built from, yet my years throughout have been rhythmically driven by the step up into spring and the swing away into autumn and the movement of birds through them.”

Dee’s definition of nature writing illuminates his and all successful attempts at the practice: “If such a thing exists, [it] lives in this territory where science and poetry might meet. It must be made of both; it needs truth and beauty.”

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