In case you hadn’t been following the extracts posted in this blog from the extraordinary book, here’s a review in full.
Good things come in trees
In his final book, Wildwood, finished four months before he died, Roger Deakin does more for Britain’s woods than anyone since Robin Hood
Sunday July 15, 2007
Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
by Roger Deakin
Hamish Hamilton £20, pp392
Shortly after he completed Wildwood, Roger Deakin, at 63, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died four months later, in August 2006. Wildwood is subtitled ‘a journey through trees’, but knowing what we know, the forests he celebrates and conjures feel as much a homecoming, or a resting place. ‘I am a woodlander,’ Deakin wrote by way of introduction to this quest. ‘I have sap in my veins.’
This book was a natural progression for the most rooted of writers. Following his aquatic journey across the Britain of 1996, Waterlog, in which he plunged into lakes and tarns and pools and rivers and evoked the special magic of each, Deakin conceived of this as another kind of log book, a total immersion in the ‘fifth element’, the world of wood. It is a book that comes with an argument, that ‘the enemies of woods are always the enemies of humanity’ and a manifesto ‘[to excite] a feeling for the importance of trees through a greater understanding of them, so that people don’t think of “trees” as they do now, but of each individual tree and each kind of tree.’ It succeeds, often wonderfully, in both of these rhetorical ambitions.
In several ways Deakin felt himself born to this quest. His mother’s maiden name was Wood; he had aunts named Ivy and Violet; their father had run a woodyard. His own father carried ‘Greenwood’ as a middle name. These seeds of his genealogy were nurtured in Deakin in the New Forest, where an inspired biology teacher had his sixth-formers map the complex ecology of some wooded acres in the course of many field trips; the boys became botanists and zoologists but above all they discovered the rigour of observation, and a love of taxonomy. Deakin translated this enthusiasm into a lifetime of looking. The exactness of his attention settled and hardened in his language, which is precise and poetic.
He begins in Suffolk in his wooden house, 400 years old, bought in 1969 as a ruin and carefully stripped to its skeleton of oak and sweet chestnut before he reclothed it. In the years of its restoration Deakin slept under the stars in the open attic, or in an abandoned wooden railway carriage in the orchard, listening to the ‘cool oboe notes of owls’ and their ‘shrewicides in the meadow and along the lane’. There was a strong part of Deakin that would have liked to have been a kind of Baron in the Trees, out of Italo Calvino’s story, taking to the high branches for a lifetime and never setting a foot on earth.
Instead, he found ways to weave woods into his world. As you would expect, this is a book not afraid of diversion on to roads less travelled; one thought branches into another. There is a loose structure: ‘Roots’, ‘Sapwood’, ‘Driftwood’ ‘Heartwood’, taking Deakin from Suffolk outwards, first south and west across England to Devon and the Forest of Dean. Then further afield, to the Pyrenees and to Australia, and out across Asia to China and Kyrgyzstan in search of the most ancient walnut and apple trees.
The southern English chapters are the best, full of easy pastoral adventure, picnics among bluebells; nights camped out beneath rookeries; evenings moth-hunting with a mercury lamp and a jumble of egg-boxes (‘the male drinker, a summer moth of woodland rides … wears its antennae branched into delicate combs, like the cow-catchers on old American steam locomotives’); there is a memorable visit to friends on Tumbling Bay Island in the Thames to build a hazel-wand bender; pilgrimages to fertility festivals in Devon and willow groves in Essex. Along the way Deakin pauses to give illuminating anecdotal histories of apple and walnut, oak and ash, no end of green thoughts in no end of green shades.
There are reference points in this wandering, notably William Cobbett and his Rural Rides, as well as the imported politics of the Whole Earth Catalog. Deakin makes the life of trees a powerful personal crusade, just as he made swimming an act of solitary revolution. For a long while he was a founder of the charity and pressure group Common Ground, and it is hard to imagine the nation’s arboreal population has had a more enthusiastic advocate and inspiring propagandist since, I don’t know, Robin Hood.
If Deakin’s travels had never taken him beyond Britain, this book would feel like a little national treasure, something that might not look out of place alongside The Compleat Angler or The Wind in the Willows. The further afield Deakin journeys, however, the less sure he seems of his footing. Transplanted from his natural habitat, he seems to forget some of the closeness of observation that rarely failed him on native soil; generalisations creep in and feel out of place in a book that prides itself on specificity. The sections from Australia and Asia in particular read like notes toward a different kind of travel book.
Happily, the wandering eventually comes full circle and returns Deakin to Suffolk. There is palpable relief to be among old friends, one that will likely be shared by the reader: ‘Back home and almost the first tree I met was a tall brooding Devonshire Quarrenden grown from an apple pip from Ted Hughes’s orchard …’ The book’s final episode begins with an account of the nurturing and construction of an ash bower – ‘In the summer heat it is a cool, green room roofed with wild hops and the flickering shadows of ash leaves. I sometimes sling a hammock inside …’- that makes you want to put down the book and spend the next 20 years creating one for yourself.
Deakin concludes by describing the creation of a new folly of ash, the most limber of woods, lashing stakes into an energetic spring spiral, imagining its future. ‘It doesn’t need me to teach it to dance,’ he writes of his partner in this enterprise, ‘it is naturally playful, a contortionist with ancestral memories of tumbling with the hedger’s no less wilful strength. When the bower eventually comes of age long after I am gone, the wooden spinning top might still be going round too.’ Auden once wrote that ‘A culture is no better than its woods’. Deakin’s book is a vibrant parting gift to both.
In his analysis of Deakin’s travel writing, giving the feeling of travelling to unfamiliar territory, the reviewer is spot on. But I don’t see this as a weakness of the book, rather a reflection of what happens when we/people like Deakin travel – uprootedness. And in this, I take the book to be even more masterful. It evokes a sense of ‘being-in-place’, an evocation that I, like the reviewer, experience as incredibly nourishing. And I think it’s not just the technical craft of Deakin’s writing that evokes this; it was his biography, the living lines he wrote upon the world through his life. Truly sumptuous.