“Tisala” by Richard Seward Newton

One of my favourite passages in Wildwood is the description of the language of jackdaws. Deakin says that one of the books that inspired him as a child was Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring, and that in his favourite chapter, Lorenz begins to learn the language of jackdaws. The cry “kiaw”, he says, is uttered by dominant jackdaws to urge the flock homewards. When a marten broke into the aviary at Lorenz’s home and killed all but one of the jackdaws, 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.

In Tisala, Richard Seward Newton attempts to portray something like this on a massive scale. A young biologist called David finds himself alone on a remote Scottish island, supposedly studying the local deer population for his PhD. One evening when he is rowing around his island, he notices a disturbance in the water nearby. He assumes it’s a shoal of fish, and then, when he sees the curve of a huge back, perhaps a basking shark. It is only when he catches a flash of blue slate that he realises he is looking at a blue whale. In a frenzy of excitement David greets the whale, which circles around his small boat in curiosity. The pair meet again the next night, and the night after that, until it becomes clear that the whale is trying to communicate with David. After months of trying and with the use of scientific equipment, the pair finally manage to strike up a conversation which shapes the rest of their lives.

The idea is a fascinating one; and as a history of one of the more brutal, unsustainable methods used by humans to exploit the natural world, I can’t think that Tisala has many rivals. The author’s knowledge of the whaling industry over the centuries is vast, and related in a very accessible, devastating way. Interwoven with this is the whale, Tisala’s, own story – a narration of how the world he knew has been destroyed by centuries of relentlessly cruel hunting, and his quest to save his species from extinction. Like the jackdaws, Tisala is anthropomorphized, and clearly experiences profound grief. In particular, he is bewildered by the fact that what he calls the genocide of his species was in part motivated by the need to provide whalebone for hats and corsets, and latterly, to make cheap food for cattle. And David can find no justification.

From a philosophical and historical point of view, the novel has a lot to recommend it. I had had a vague knowledge of whaling (gleaned mostly from Moby Dick…) and understood from occasional news articles that, much like EU fishing quotas, the IWC struggled with enforceability. I learnt a great deal more here, though; and I can appreciate the value of trying to look at human behaviour through the lens of another species.

That being said, I did have a number of reservations. First, I think there is a danger in over-sentimentalising and anthropormorphising animals as a way of persuading humans not to harm them. It may well be that cetaceans grieve as profoundly as we do, and it is almost certainly true that most of us at least have almost no understanding of the language, emotional intelligence and societal structures of other species. That, though, cannot be the main argument for preserving biodiversity. Although it’s beguiling, it seems dangerous to rank species relative to how like humans they are – the reduction in the number of Antarctic krill is no less worthy of our attention, for example. The catastrophic destruction of whale populations as a direct result of human activity is shameful and very easy to feel enraged by, and to mourn – I cried plenty during reading this book – but we shouldn’t just conserve wildlife because its destruction is distressing. There is a moment in the book when Tisala accuses humans of destroying miracles you do not even see. It’s a very quotable line, and one that resonated. Of course we should question the ethics of the ways in which we treat the natural world – but surely we will have a better chance of protecting it if we stop using human characteristics as a yardstick to measure a species’ value by.

I also really struggled to connect with the human characters in the novel. Tisala, with his rumbling laugh and keen intelligence, is beautifully drawn, and I’d say the novel’s real success. David, though, occasionally makes odd, inexplicable missteps – early on, for example, he describes the marital successes of various types of girl in a bizarrely sexist way: the timid, plainer and conventional girls are given a chance at parties to establish their often kind and competent qualities, which enable them to win a husband; but woe betide the girls who, having played the game too long or with too much looseness, choosiness or pride, remained unmarried…and on party nights [would] apply more make-up with creeping apprehension. I couldn’t quite believe it. In the context of this vast novel it’s perhaps unfair of me to focus on such a fleeting moment – but it’s alienating, and is the sort of sweeping, slightly unthinking language which bought me up short, and meant I struggled to empathise with David. Essentially there are times when the language just lost its fluency, and seemed unnatural.

For me, it was also far too long. It’s such an interesting idea, but I felt as though it could have been pared down to its core components – Tisala, whaling, and the need for humans to reconsider the way they treat the natural world. A great deal of the book is given over to David and Tisala’s extended conversations on education, and population size, and warfare, for example – and I can appreciate why, as Tisala functions almost like an aquatic Montaigne, holding a mirror up to human life. For me, though, there was just too much – I couldn’t switch between the brutal, compelling story of Tisala’s family to these esoteric conversations; and in the effort of trying to do so, I lost the story’s rhythm.

Overall, I’m pleased I found Tisala. It talks about things I’m very interested in in an inventive and thoughtful way; it never quite captivated me, and from time to time the style or an opinion jarred, but as an impassioned record of a brutal industry, it is a very interesting book.

“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.

“Rogue Male” by Geoffrey Household

The behaviour of a rogue may fairly be described as individual, separation from its fellows appearing to increase both cunning and ferocity.

Roger Deakin mentions Rogue Male a number of times throughout Notes from Walnut Tree Farm – I think it would be impossible to finish Deakin’s book without feeling compelled to read Geoffrey Household’s most famous offering at the earliest opportunity.

It is an absolute gem of a novel – with all of the ingredients required for a classic adventure story paired with a fascinating psychological study of the classic British gentleman. The enigmatic hero, who is never named, is clearly the prototype for characters like James Bond; maverick Brits of a certain class who tear up the rule book for the sake of Queen and Country. And yet one of fundamental features of this story is that our man is not motivated by patriotism – he is a true rogue with an independent will. As he says towards the end, “I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little these days that is worth dying for. But dying against – there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.” This prototype is arguably more nuanced than any of his later reincarnations, and far more dangerous and intriguing as a result.

The novel – written in the first person, as the hero records his experiences in a notebook – opens with a failed assassination. Our protagonist, half-convinced that he is stalking his prey out of a love of the sport rather than with any intent to kill, is caught aiming his rifle at a European dictator bearing more than a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler. When he is interrogated by the dictator’s lackeys, he argues that he is nothing more than an eccentric sportsman who wanted to know whether it might be possible to shoot his prey if he so wished; unsurprisingly this doesn’t wash, and our nameless hero is brutally tortured. The scene is entirely left to the imagination and, like all the thrillers, the reader has to conjure the punishments for herself – suffice to say that by the time the hero is hurled from a cliff, one eye is burnt and swollen, his nails have been removed, his fingers crushed, and the masticated flesh of the back of his legs is in a dire state. Rather than dying in the marshland below as his torturers had intended, however, the figure crawls out of the slime like a primordial beast, dragging himself to the safety of some nearby woodland. Through his ingenuity and grit, our man finds himself back in England, now being hunted both by the (let’s call them German) spies, and the English police. Whilst we are not told his name, we know that he is very well known to his countrymen as a result of past exploits in foreign lands – in addition to having a very recognisably wounded eye. He therefore decides that he must go to ground to evade his would-be captors, and chooses Dorset as his refuge.

The plot would be enticing enough; and then there is the quality of the writing itself. Household, speaking through his narrator, is shrewd and full of insight; “I felt I had come home –  a half-melancholy sense of slippered relaxation.”  You, the reader, are invited to play with the idea of espionage, piecing together an image of the protagonist from the scant facts he reveals. We know he is relatively famous, or infamous in England; that he is in his late 30s; that his family home is centuries old, suggesting he is an aristocrat; we know he has travelled widely; and that he likes big-game hunting. These pieces of information are revealed gradually over the course of the novel and as circumstances demand; they are not offered on a plate, but neither are they obscured. The same is true of the protagonist’s thoughts – he is relatively open about his opinions (“A hideous word, hiker. It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub”; “The only periods, I suspect, when a man feels captain of his soul are those when he has not the slightest need of such an organ”), but his motivations are concealed even from him. We do not know why he was aiming a gun at the dictator; he is not an agent of the state, and keeps telling himself that he did not mean to pull the trigger. But, through the course of the novel, and as our man is physically tortured, interrogated, and even buried alive, he accesses feelings he had been suppressing, and in doing so gradually reveals himself to us. “By writing of him I become him for the time.”

I won’t tell you exactly what he discovers about himself as he presses his cold body into a burrow in Dorset, other than to say that it certainly cements his heroic status. What is even better is that, as Robert Macfarlane’s excellent introduction explains, Household’s career during the Second World War almost rivalled his creation’s in resourcefulness and courage.  A rip-roaring, intelligent yarn; thank you, 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.