Sunday, 6 April 2008


For Father’s Day 2008 I received a book that I already owned. Armed with the receipt I set off to Waterstones to exchange it for something else. For the booklover wandering through Waterstones must awaken the same feelings of ennui and anti-climax as a food-snob winning a trolley dash around Iceland. The shelves bulge with the pre-packaged and over hyped, low quality celebrity-backed junk with a TV tie-in. I can think of a hundred books on a dozen subjects that I want/need/desire but as I walked through the shop it was clear that I would struggle to find any of them here.

The natural history section seemed to consist only of books about garden birds and I was about to turn away when I saw the spine of “Wildwood” stand out from the crowd. I had made a mental note to myself in the summer of 2007 to buy the book after hearing it discussed on Radio 4 as I drove to work but as with most mental notes in fell off the mental kitchen wall and down the back of the mental fridge long before I acted on it. Justing by picking the book up and feeling its weight, the well designed boards and the texture of its creamy pages I knew this was something that I should have bought and that the chance must not slip away again.

Deakin weaves his personal history through the pages of the book like a spoor. References to hippy fairs in Suffolk in 1970, the Whole Earth Catalogue and The Incredible String Band point to where he came from and how his views were formed and it is clear that Deakin was part of the counterculture that saw its role as ecological activists and conservationists of both tradition and place long before such ideas had been smoothed down to fit the mainstream. The resurrection of his sixteenth century timbered farmhouse from a near derelict shell to a living home is discusses with pride and the knowledge won from hard work.. For Deakin this house, with its moat and 323 oak beams in which swallows and spiders were as welcome as he, roots him to the spot. He talks of the seeming permanence of houses as opposed to the transience of camps that he has built in the deep hedgerows but acknowledged that in reality we are just passing through, and houses, even one as old and wooden as his are just blinks in the eye of the forest.
But these are not the reflections of a middle-aged New Ager living out the rural dream in deepest Suffolk but rather a book that looks at the lives of the people who live in woods and who work with wood, artists and artisans and harvesters. For Deakin wood is a “fifth element”, a quintessence that partakes of earth, air and water to grow and in turn feeds the fires to warm and feed us, provides material to build and craft the things that support and delight us and exists in it’s own right as a thing of beauty both when alive and dead. To the medieval mind the wildwood was a wilderness, a place of monsters and outlaws in which chaos and panic ruled. It was to be contrasted with the garden, ordered and cultured, a place for courtly love and civilisation. Deakin carries on this tradition and shows how foresters have always been marginal people, living literally beyond the bounds and beyond the control of landowners, church and state. He recounts how foresters have struggled and fought to preserve rights to the land in opposition to those who would put them off it and he quotes from Thomas Hardy’s “The Woodlanders” to illustrate how poor a living was to be had from the woods. The sense of struggle for scant reward runs through the book as Deakin details the troubles of Suffolk thatchers and Australian woodsmen in providing a reasonable living from the woods and he does not flinch from proclaiming that the dynamic reciprocal relationship with the environment that was once everyday and everywhere is becoming harder to sustain.

Good travel writing should be able to invoke two complimentary yet seemingly conflicting emotions; the desire to experience new and different places whilst at the same time evoking in the reader the feeling that by virtue of reading the page they have already travelled there and know it well. Deakin’s numinous, elegiac prose on the walnut forests of southern France, the damp eerie spruce of the Ukraine and the various habitats of the Australian bush does just this. He visits each with a keen naturalist’s eye for detail and a sensitive, human desire to interact and learn from the people who continue to live and work in the forests of the world. However it is when he travels to the former Soviet states of central Asia in search of the origins of domestic fruit varieties that the book begins to stir the soul. Travelling with local foresters and researchers Deakin climbs through remote wooded valleys by day and stays by night in forest Dachas , eating the walnuts that are offered to him by every one he meets. In these valley’s Deakin describes a primal idyll of wild fruit forests that support hundreds of varieties of wild apple, plum, walnut and berry. In his journeys through the woodlands of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan Deakin does nothing less than look back into Eden, a fertile and gentle habitat among the wild places that produced the means for humanity to thrive and drift across the earth.

Books that do not make one think are not worth reading and for me there was as much to make my spirits sink in Wildwood as there was to make me soar. The saddest was to contrast Deakin’s description of magnificent, wild ancient woodland with the mean and degraded woods that predominate in Britain today. Professor Tolkien once commented that he did not think there was a single patch of wildwood left anywhere in the land, and if there was he would not want to visit it for fear of finding it littered and despoiled. When I walk in the woods behind my house with my daughters I am well aware that this is not the Ferghana Valley or even the green-man haunted oak woods of Devon. This is the remnant of a woodland, hemmed in by housing and roads, the becks running pale and dead with the effluent from industrial estates, the signs of casual vandalism showing on trees and the woodland floor as trail bikes and drunken kids leave their mark.

It is painful to see how few old trees remain in my local woods, here or there an oak or a beech growing quietly alone, towering over the younger ash and scrubby spruce trying to grow on the shaley waste from collieries. It is hard to feel satisfied with such places when Deakin talks of the Pilliga Forest or wild olive woods on the mountains of Lesbos but we are where we are. The beck might not support as many fish as it did when I was 10 but last week when I went into the woods to cut hazel poles I disturbed a pair of mallards that had swam upstream away from the flooded river. There are still huge blackthorn thickets that rise like islands where the wood meets the fields, enveloping other tree’s in their spread and providing a haven for hares and bullfinches and there is ample evidence of deer in the woods, both by the scrapings and slots along the game trails and the nibbled saplings and shoots – even occasionally the startled gallop and the sound of breaking twigs as the animals flee. The stench from the sewage works does not seem to hindered the pale grey leafy lichens from colonising acres of planted larch or the flocks of waxwings from feasting on the rowan berries in winter. There is still diversity and beauty in the woods and we should make it our business to enjoy it.

I came to the end of Wildwood with regret. Deakin had described his home and the surrounding woodlands in Suffolk with such careful detail that I felt I could log on to Google Earth and look through his window. He had written of places I had never heard of and will never see in a way that makes me thirst for them. He had found wonder and grandeur in the smallest of things – the wobbly flight of moths, the presence of plants in unexpected places and the soft chuckling language rooks use to sooth their chicks in the nest. He had praised the humble ash tree in the final chapter of the book, marvelling at its ability to bend and create organic architecture, swooning over it’s pale grey skin and tendency to have green mossy socks, which le likened to the shaggy legs of Pan, and in doing so he had made me love the local distinctiveness that makes my local woods what they are.

It was with deep sadness that I googled his name after reading the book to find obituaries. Roger Deakin died of a brain tumour in August 2006. That Wildwood should be his last book is a shame, he had planned to write a book about the county of Essex and another on the aboriginal heritage of the British Isles, both of which I am sure would have been full of the same intimate, well observed detail and poetic joy as Wildwood and it’s predecessor Watelogged. It is a strange and sobering sensation to find that the author you have just read, in which the life force and wonder of trees and woodland is celebrated in vivid beauty has himself returned to the earth.

Roger Deakin – writer, filmmaker and environmentalist
11th February 1943 - 19th August 2006

Top: Wildwood
Middle: Deakin swimming
Bottom: Rowan thicket in Weardale, July 2007

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