Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
Nature writer Roger Deakin considers wood as a vital element of life.
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The ancient Greeks believed that, along with the four winds, life on this planet rested upon four elemental agents: earth (soil), air, fire, and water. But in “Wildwood” Deakin embraces the ancient Chinese notion of a fifth element – wood in all its manifestations.Skip to next paragraph
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Forests are tethered to the other elements, he reckons, and are living exponents of them. But, he suggests, forests also share a special organic, evolutionary relationship with humans. The evolution of our species literally has been carved out of wood, which has provided human sustenance in the form of shelter, creature comforts, fuel, art, physical nourishment, baby’s cradles, finely crafted coffins, and dreamy places where the spirit goes to dwell.
Deakin ruminates on the eternal recycling that happens in a willow patch every day.
“Woods have their own rich ecology, and their own people, woodlanders, living and working in and around them,” he writes. “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 vapor into the summer air, this water then rises invisibly to join the clouds, and the falling raindrops ripple out into every tree ring.”
Deakin’s revelations are poetic, his research comprehensive, but flowing from his pen are the insights of a mystic. Yes, one could describe his prose as Thoreauvian, but many readers would argue that he also shares a kinship with Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and E.O. Wilson as well.
Fittingly, in one of the final chapters completed just before his death, Deakin goes “coppicing” near his home in Suffolk.
Coppicing is the practice whereby older trees are reduced to stumps, spurring a rapid response of shoots springing up from the main trunk. Once upon a time in England, it was a technique borne of necessity, to yield more fiber for cooking fuel, roof thatching, and firing of metal kilns. But today, coppicing represents a high art of aesthetic forest renewal for species as diverse as beech, ash, oak, alder, and willow.
With his death, Deakin’s writing itself could be viewed as a form of literary coppicing. Borrowing from insights of naturalists who came before him, he took to the woods to be transformed and, in turn, he has influenced a new generation of gifted writers.
The thoughts of readers – especially North Americans who take wilderness for granted – are transformed by Deakin’s writing; fittingly it occurs through the medium of yet another byproduct of wood, the written page.
Todd Wilkinson is a freelance writer who lives in Bozeman, Mont.