“Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees” by Roger Deakin

Reading Notes From Walnut Tree Farm led me, joyfully, to Rogue Male
– one of the best adventure novels I’ve read (and a great movie, too, with Peter O’Toole at his electrifying best). Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees has been similarly lavish in terms of new introductions. I had never heard of the artists David Nash or John Wolseley before, for instance, and am now desperate to see their work in person after Deakin’s tantalizing descriptions. (I may have to wait until Christmas to get my hands on one of the beautiful collaborative books John Wolseley has published in recent years – they’re a bit too dear for an impulse purchase, sadly). In the best way possible, it’s one of those books that makes you wonder what on earth you’ve been looking at all these years – I wanted to absorb every image, and know I will read it many times again, luxuriating in the detail.

Wildwood is divided into four sections (Roots, Sapwood, Driftwood and Heartwood) all of which meander through a series of lightly linked vignettes. The artery running through the book, of course, is bursting with trees. Structured rather like one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s adventures, Deakin takes you from the woodland of his childhood (where the finely named Biology Teacher, Barry Goater, first inspired his love of nature), through the rich, pagan, tree-bound traditions of the British Isles, and then onwards to Australia and Central Asia. Every page is overflowing with fascinating ecological facts, romantic tradition, natural beauty, and his sharply observant, delighted writing style. I imagine Deakin himself must have been one heck of a teacher.

With fluid ease, as if exploring the tributaries of a wooded river, he introduces the greenman of English folklore; artists such as Nash and Wolseley; poets like Ted Hughes; walnut-gatherers in Kyrgyzstan; and aboriginal fruit-pickers in Australia. His international cast, linked by a web of shared botanical knowledge and friendship, reveal the shared traditions of woodland. Each of them experience it in his or her own way – the journey through the Australian bush in search of fruit is very different to the image of a group of lepidopterists gathering in the Essex darkness to look for moths – but there are common themes. Time – freedom – knowledge – community – mythology.

And interspersing the descriptions of woodland with references to his artist friends ensures that you experience his travels in a very visual, and at times almost metaphysical way. In the Australian section, for example, I was very much reminded of the surreal visuals of the 1971 film “Walkabout”; a series of images punctuated by Wolseley’s charred, grey-brown visions of the bush. In the sections talking about the wild walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, it was as though I was reading about one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s dream-like experiences. The descriptions of the stone and wooden henges in Britain are rich with visual ritual – patinas of history layered over one another in rock and wood, as people commemorated the dead or celebrated the living for thousands of years. And in talking about David Nash’s wooden boulder, Deakin writes:

I sense that perhaps Wooden Boulder has become an alter-ego for Nash: it’s unfolding story part of his life, the restless thing itself an embodiment of his soul….There is a mythic feel to the story of Wooden Boulder. An artist turns a tree into a boulder, which miraculously floats and swims its way over many years towards the sea, where it rolls over like a seal and seems to disappear.

Sitting side by side with that poetic sense of the importance of woodland are very practical explanations. He talks about Nikolai Vavilov (I’ve just been learning about Vavilov centres as part of my environmental studies A-level, so that was exciting), the evolution of the domestic apple, the reason leaves change colour in autumn and the way forests marshal humidity. Which means that your mind is constantly stimulated – a breakdown of photosynthesis here, descriptions of grieving birds there…what a treasure trove.

“When a marten broke into the roosting aviary at Altenberg and killed all but one of his jackdaw flock, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was “Kiaw”, “Come back, oh, come back. It was a song of heartbreak.”

The ready comparison which kept rolling about as I made my way through Wildwood (much like David Nash’s elusive wooden boulder) is to Ted Hughes’ poetry, which Deakin refers to on a number of occasions. Hughes is never just writing as a poet – his verse is layered with identities and visions. He is a naturalist; an anthropologist; a seer; a bird; and a lover. It gives his writing a sense of being suspended above time, and lends Hughes as poet a kind of eternal wisdom. Deakin feels the same, somehow. All of life is reflected in these pages. If anyone could convince you to immerse yourself in nature and its preservation, it’s Roger Deakin.

“Notes from Walnut Tree Farm” by Roger Deakin

I read about Notes from Walnut Tree Farm on the excellent So Many Books (So Many Books),and couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Once again, Roger Deakin is one of those writers I can’t believe I’d never come across before – and is yet another reason I’m so delighted I made the decision to start exploring book review blogging earlier this year. So far, it’s led me to Patrick Leigh Fermor; Nick Wood; Gladys Mitchell; and Roger Deakin. That’s some reading list.

For the last six years of his life, Roger Deakin, a writer, broadcaster and passionate advocate of wild-swimming, recorded his thoughts in a series of notebooks. This is a very finely edited collection of those writings, presented as a sequence of entries over the course of a single year. In these notes, Deakin observes the world around him; offers snatches of poetry and philosophy; relives encounters with friends; and muses on the way the habitat around the farm was being transformed by the mania for tidiness in rural areas and the invasion of urbanites in their four-wheel drives. It is a glimpse into a passionate, kind, intelligent, questing mind.

One of the many things I’ve been discovering as I’ve read more non-fiction this year – particularly in relation to travel, wildlife and environmentalism – is how these genres offer such consistently vivid, lyrical prose. It is a vast generalisation, of course, but one which seems to holds true; something about being so bound to the natural world, to paths and trees and wildness, gives the best of these writers an intense acuity. The same is true of the finest cricket writing, by the way – focusing on a tangible, physical narrative offers commentators the freedom to riff over the top of the scene, to describe images with occasionally outrageous sharpness and delight. It is some of the best prose writing I have ever come across, a world of astonishing poetry which is invisible if you dedicate yourself to fiction (as I have tended to do). (Really, I would urge any aspiring writer to read Neville Cardus – even if the game itself isn’t your thing, it’s a complete joy.) I don’t know what Roger Deakin might have felt about the cricket – he mentions in Walnut Farm that he doesn’t know who Phil Tufnell is, so I assume he wasn’t a fan! – but his writing certainly supports my nascent theory. He relishes language and its relationship to the Suffolk wildlife he loved so deeply; combining poetry with a remarkably shrewd eye for detail.

I walk up the field to investigate. Little haloes of stamens’ ruffed courtiers (as all the plantains flower, like tiny courtiers’ ruffs, all bowing and nodding to each other.

Moorhens sound like a cork twisting in a wet bottleneck.

And perhaps my favourite – We pitched the pup-tents side by side on an almost-level sward and slept soundly in the silence under a mackerel-sky perforated by stars.

“Mackerel-sky” – what a perfect image! I’d never come across the description before, but apparently a “mackerel-sky” is a sky dappled with rows of small white fleecy…clouds, like the pattern on a mackerel’s back (Oxford Dictionaries Online). In any case, descriptions like that come think and fast here – sources of rivers are the tear-ducts of the earth; an insect frantically washes its legs like Lady Macbeth – perfect little jewels, the kind of keepsakes you find in Ted Hughes or John Clare, and which compel you to scribble incessantly in the margin, adding stars and exclamation marks.

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm gives a very special insight into Deakin’s curious, irreverent mind. There’s something in the format which fosters real intimacy, lets you feel as though you are making a friend – a bit like reading Montaigne’s essays. The occasionally insights into the fact that he believed his love of conservation came from the death of his father when he was only seventeen are particularly moving, appearing like sudden bolts in the middle of the rippling narrative.

I returned to school still wearing a black armband, as people did in 1960, and my embarrassed friends avoided my eye. It was almost as though I myself had died, so ghostly, so invisible did I feel. Thus did I acquire my sense of loss – a deep-seated feeling that has followed me around all my life and that I’ve never shaken off.

Deakin’s anecdotes, like his descriptions, twinkle on the page, and his boyish enthusiasm runs through the text like an artery. (He makes frequent references to a novel called Rogue Male for example, a classic 1939 thriller which I have now acquired and very much look forward to reading.) One of the things he laments about the many changes to the English countryside is the fact that people no long acknowledge one another when they’re out walking. I will make a point of always doing so from now on, as a way of honouring Deakin, and to attempt to recapture some of the rural spirit he knew we were losing.