“Landfill” by Tim Dee

My copy of Landfill was supplied for review by Little Toller Books.

Tim Dee’s latest book may just be his most important. His 2008 work The Running Sky is justifiably recognised as a classic of modern nature writing. Through the months of a year Dee looks at a particular species, habitat, or aspect of our relationship with birds. Never the monomaniac, he sees connections between things that are not always obvious: a magpie’s eye for collecting seemingly disparate threads and bringing them together.

His second book, Four Fields, is – for me – his weakest. A study of four different fields (in England, America, Africa and Ukraine) in different weathers and seasons, the book reads like the author is trying too hard for unity of design. That said, Dee’s prose is always a pleasure, and the chapters on Chernobyl were engrossing. Of all the Chernobyl-related literature I’ve read, this passage stands out:

“Fall-out was so potent in these woods that for a time it destroyed microbial activity as well as most other living things. Rot was killed, decay arrested and the dead kept immutably dead. There were no friendly worms. Death, needing no colleagues, moved as an absolute master through these woods and fields, armed solely with itself, raining death beyond death down over the trees and grass, keeping everything dead.”

The idea that there can be a form of death so absolute that it prevents rot is appalling; utterly un-natural. I first read that paragraph with the same creeping feeling of dread that a horror story gives.

All of which brings me nicely around to the new book. Landfill is, in one sense, a book about death. Throughout, we see glimpses of Dee’s ageing parents and the slow constriction of their horizons (ironically, in a book about one of nature’s great colonisers) and his adjustment to their increasingly straitened circumstances. But it’s also about what we throw away, and the effects of our behaviour on those most raucous and vital of our urban neighbours: gulls.

The book’s promotional material calls it “a new book about rubbish and birds” but that new is surely superfluous. There can’t be many books devoted to the relationship between our culture’s detritus1 and the natural world, and certainly fewer still about gulls. Why not? Dee has written passionately about the purpose of the new nature writing, and in his introduction to the recent Ground Work: Writings on Places and People, says:

“Modernity has shattered our world like never before, we are more deracinated than ever, but because we feel most places to be nowhere we have also learned that anywhere can be a somewhere.”

Landfill, then, is a further entry into the library of nature writing which aims to redress that particular imbalance.

***

As an occasional birder, gulls are one of my blindspots: I can identify black-headed, herring, lesser- and greater-black-backed but like many people tend not to pay them much regard (though watching a soaring white gull against a clear blue sky is one of life’s small pleasures). “Nowadays gulls are trash birds, the subnatural inhabitants of drossscapes“: this is true. We view them as we view pigeons or rats (“slum avifauna”), and in the process we establish a mental hierarchy of nature. But larophiles (from the genus larus) exist, and this book shines a light on them.

Our rubbish tips allowed previously cliff-dwelling birds to colonise inland areas miles from the sea. However, changes to our disposal habits are forcing them to adapt. We throw away far less food waste than we used to, so the number of gulls at landfill sites has dropped. At the same time, reports (usually in the silly season, which coincides with the summer holidays) shrilly alert us to the hazards of marauding gulls who brazenly steal tourists’ chips or guzzle their ice creams. The reality, as ever, is more nuanced.

But what are gulls to do? “We’re responsible for all this. Gulls are caught in an ecological trap with us”, says Viola Ross-Smith of the BTO (Dee speaks to many experts throughout the book and generously allows them their own voice, even their own chapter). I particularly like the anecdote about how “[gulls] have even learned that dumps often don’t open on Sundays and they must go elsewhere…apparently [they are] confused by public holidays, and wait for hours in vain.” Poor sods. Yet “gulls are dynamic birds and fast adapting”, displaying aptly-named “behavioural plasticity”.

On the subject of plastic, I would have liked – and indeed expected – a little more on the subject of rubbish itself (the balance is definitely in favour of “birds” over “rubbish”). As it happens, while I was reading the book BBC4 showed a documentary on the history of landfill which was far more informative on what happens to what we throw away. Perhaps I’m being too literal in my expectations.

Despite what the title implies, this is a book more about order than mess. I hadn’t known that the early years of this century saw the Herring Gull split into several individual species, including Yellow-Legged and Caspian, which had previously been considered sub-species. Dee examines this at length, pondering the way we sort and organise the natural world – none of which materially affects it (a Herring Gull doesn’t know it’s a “Herring Gull”) – and then revise that ordering. Species are “lumped” together or “split” apart, yet the whole time “a species is a human construct”. Gaps in the Arctic sea ice have made passage around the northern hemisphere easier for birds, and this has allowed previously separate subspecies to interbreed. “Evolution isn’t over, although most of us carry on as if it has finished – as if its discovery, the auditing of its accounts, locked it down forever.”

***

Dee intersperses his own trips to watch gulls with pretty much every significant cultural appearance of the birds (including, naturally, Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, which I’ve looked at before) or of rubbish dumps. Again, I got the feeling that at times he was trying to bring everything into scope and was perhaps over-reaching in search of significance. That said, his contempt for Richard Bach’s “poisonous” Jonathan Livingston Seagull is amusing. He loathes its embodiment of a particularly American sense of Manifest Destiny, and laments that the gulls are only gulls in form. Bach “stole their gullitude and colonised or domesticated the birds even as it constructed a fable around their real aerial mastery.”

Moving onto cultural representations of rubbish, he looks at Clive King’s gentle, wonderful Stig of the Dump: a book I persuaded – over a period of months – my reluctant son to let me read to him, and who then loved it. Dee muses on the dump in question, full of pre-plastic junk, all reusable and re-purposed by Stig. He looks, too, at that poet laureate of “living residue”, Samuel Beckett, via Happy Days and Endgame, works in which life, in true Beckettian style, just persists.

Although by the end you may feel that every cultural reference to gulls and rubbish tips has been exhausted (though the anti-epiphany of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is absent), ultimately this is a rewarding book, even if the concept may not be one with immediate appeal. Dee himself had reservations, but the process of researching and writing the book evidently affected him:

“I thought writing about this might describe an impoverished experience: birders turning to gulls because they are the only birds around…but it turns out more substantially that the meeting of gulls and people is exuberant… birders [are] processing the gulls, picking through them, finding new things to know and to understand, finding value in creatures others labelled shoddy or dreck. This enthusiastic ordering of life…in the midst of the organising of what we would call death is gripping. Landfill means more than just a tip for the end of things. It is also a description of how we have worked the rest of the living world, learned about it, named and catalogued it, and have thus occupied or planted our planet, filling the land.”

In the introduction to Ground Work quoted from above, referring to the charity/lobby group Common Ground, whose guiding principles inform much of the best of the new nature writing, Dee writes:

“One of the reasons why nature writing is resurgent today is because of Common Ground’s steadfast belief in the value of exploring what the natural world – even the broken-down, rubbish-dump world – means to us.”

With biodiversity destruction rampant, the Brazilian rainforests under renewed threat, plastic choking the oceans and species extinction at unprecedented levels, we can no longer turn our face from what we have done to the world. And that, as this thoroughly absorbing book examines, means bearing witness to the environments our culture has created, even if it means risking “the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass”.

 

1 “At the point we identify anything as waste, even though up until then it has been ours, we don’t want it and we don’t like it.”

 

Sources:

Dee, Tim: Landfill (Little Toller, 2018)

Dee, Tim: Four Fields (Jonathan Cape, 2013)

Dee, Tim (ed.): Ground Work: Writings on Places and People (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

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