From the East Anglian fens to the fragile wilds of Chernobyl

Tim Dee’s Four Fields is a title reflecting a bit of a conceit – it might equally be called “interesting natural things I’ve seen around the world”. It ranges widely from the fens of East Anglia to the horrors of nature distorted around Chernobyl, with a digression to a near-abandoned tobacco farm in South Africa to follow a honeyguide, to the American prairie and site of Custer’s last stand.

But it was the accounts of the fens I found most fascinating, possibly for their combination of history and ecology. Dee reports on the draining of Whittlesey Moor, the last fen mere to be so treated, in 1851. An iron column, 22 feet high was driven into the peat until it rested on the clay, it’s top level with the peat. “The water was pumped from Whittlesey in a matter of days. Locals strapped planks to their feet to walk on the mud and gather the fish that were dwoning in air. Eels and others were taken by the ton… the lake gave up a censer and an incense boat, which the last Abbot of Ramsey had lost in its watery flight from the Dissolution Commissioners of Henry VIII. The skeleton of a gramps (a dolphin of some species, possibly a killer whale) was also found, a leftover from more marine times. The water birds … went with its water. Previously, eight punt-gunners had made a living shooting its ducks. Three thousand wildfowl had been taken from the decoy on Holmes Fen in one week. Eight bitters or buttercups had been shot on Whittlesey in one day.” And on the column, Dee says … “its crown is now 12 feet clear of the earth, an iron-green stick in the birch-crowded day.” (p. 28) – a result of the peat soil shrinking.

Yet the earlier, pre-drained, fenland had been immensely productive, a part-wild, part-farmed place. “there were always people in every field and on every fen… reeds and sedges scythe for teaching; duck and fish tapped for food; peat dug for fuel; litter … off marsh plants for coarse hay. … Reeds grew in the wetter part of the fen. After winter frosts stripped them of their flags, old stems of four years or more were cut for roofing and younger stems were mixed with litter for fodder… Coopers sought the bullrushes on the fen, their long round stems were dried and placed between barrel staves where, on contact with fewer or whatever else was in the barrels, the stems would swell and keep the joints watertight. … Osiers from willows on the fen were cut for baskets, eel traps and foggot binds; thicker branches made good scythe handles. To keep the stick swollen and the fastening firm between harvests, scythe would be stored under the fen water, like moon-slivers of rusting silver.”

Dee’s account of the abandoned land around Chernobyl, which he visited on a scientific expedition, is immensely powerful, particularly of the Red Forest “one of the hottest radiation spots.. the birch trees are doing better than the pines. Birch seems to possess some superior ability to repair its own DNA. .. I wandered among birches half my age and three times my height, the wispy children of Chernobyl … this was a clearing made hbhy the explosion, the trees that once grew here were killed by radiation. Many of them still lay on the ground, preserved in death since 1986, their grey trunks wrapped in a fogged and brittle marquetry. 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 immutable 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.” (p. 189)

“There are wild things in the Zone, like those black grouse. Moose, and wolves, too. But Anders and Tim insist that these are very few. Everything they have studied bears them out. In all his travels and transacts Anders has glimpsed a owl only once. And those animals that are living here have a hard time of it. A white-tailed eagle clambered heavily into the air as we were leaving the village and whinnied to a mate and both, huge and tremendous, did their flying stable-door impersonations, calling like Pegasus through the sky. But the male may well be sterile, the female warming dead eggs summer after summer until she dies. In five days of walking through what some have wanted to call a resurgent wilderness I didn’t see a single mammal. I hardly saw a bee.” (p. 201)

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