Regular readers will know that I’ve been revisiting some books I’ve read previously in line with what’s current in my birding and blogging. Following on from Wintering by Steven Rutt I had a second look at Landfill by Tim Dee. I am glad I did.
Landfill looks at the relationship between mankind and gulls, in particular the larger gull species that have adapted to the ready source of food on rubbish tips and in towns. Much of this is focused on Bristol, where Tim lives and takes a tour with renowned gull expert Peter Rock as well as talking to interested locals. On tour there are visits to the ringing team at Pitsea landfill on the Thames Estuary to meet ringers and observers who religiously cover winter gull roosts on inland waters and other refuse dumps.
I liked Tim’s honesty about the fact that developing gull taxonomy had left him feeling rather inadequate as a birder, having been able to identify most birds he saw then having this certainty removed from him as new species and sub-species were coined. The newest gull guides still make this emergent identification challenge sound easier than it is, and I liked the analogy with leaving a lecture where everything seemed to make sense and then finding that dissipate.
Whilst some of the ground covered is quite niche including ring species and evolving gull migration, nesting and feeding strategies it never felt dull or inaccessible to me, though I speak as someone relatively conversant with the subject matter. There are some nice observations, including how the ringers on Pitsea Tip throw their lunch packaging under their feet whilst Dee does what seems the right thing and takes his home; and the frequency with which certain self-entertainment devices are found underfoot there.
Among several standout paragraphs here is one I liked:
“At first, I thought writing about this might describe an impoverished experience: birders turning to gulls because they are the only birds around. I also thought watching the watchers and the watched might be melancholic, or darkly funny: men leaving their homes and their families to spend time peering at arsey birds in some of the arseholes of the world. There is a bit of this, but it turns out more substantially that the meeting of gulls and people is exuberant. It has an excess that could be called joyous”.
There are places where the meandering away from the core subject goes further than I would have personally preferred, particularly when it reprises the plot of a number fiction works such as The Birds and Age of Iron at length. I can also see why the stylised illustrations by Greg Poole are not everyone’s cup of tea having read other reviews. However if you are at all interested in urban gulls and the people who study them I would definitely recommend this book.
(I can’t extend my normal offer to lend it locally as I only have the Kindle version)