“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.