It’s a rare book that induces a yearning, bordering on grief, when the reading of its world is over. I’ve found this with Roger Deakin’s ‘Wildwood’. I’ve now finished, and ‘returned home’ from its pages around England, the Australian outback, Eastern Europe, the Pyrenees, and the ancient walnut forests and apple orchards of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The writing is rambling in the enchanted, rather than derogatory, sense of the word, weaving autobiography with cultural and natural history and travel writing. Deakin’s evocation of place is superb, and his writing has such a life to it that it’s as if the energy of trees and the woodlands, and the life that they support, is imparted to the reader. In this, the writing has the air of magic to it. Indeed, I’m unsurprised that the book stirred one reviewer to claim Deakin has done more for Britain’s woodlands than anyone since Robin Hood.
So it’s fitting for me to end these excerpts with Deakin’s own words about the book from his Introduction that he must have completed just before his death.
[...] Wildwood is about the element of wood, as it exists in nature, in our souls, in our culture and in our lives. To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is no accident that in the comedies of Shakespeare, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change. It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost. Merlin sends the future King Arthur as a boy into the greenwood to fend for himself in The Sword in the Stone. There, he falls asleep and dreams himself, like a chameleon, into the lives of the animals and the trees. In As You Like It, the banished Duke Senior goes to live in the Forest of Arden like Robin Hood, and in Midsummer Night’s Dream the magical metamorphosis of the lovers takes place in a wood ‘outside Athens’ that is quite obviously an English wood, full of the faeries and Robin Goodfellows of our folklore. [...]
Wildwood is a quest for the residual magic of trees and wood that still touches us not far beneath the surface of our daily lives.
Human begins depend on trees quite as much as on rivers and the sea. Our intimate relationship with trees is physical as well as cultural and spiritual: literally an exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen. Once inside a wood, you walk on something very like the seabed, looking up at the canopy of leaves as if it were the surface of the water, filtering the descending shafts of sunlight and dappling everything. Woods have their own rich ecology, and their own people, woodlanders, living and working in and around them. A tree itself is a river of sap: through roots that wave about underwater like sea anemones, the willow pollard at one end of the moat where I swim in Suffolk draws gallons of water into the leaf-tips of its topmost branches every day; released as vapour into the summer air, this water then rises invisibly to join the clouds, and the falling raindrops ripple out into every tree ring.