Many writers have fetishes. Roger Deakin’s started with water and ended with trees. The late British naturalist, environmentalist, and wanderer writes in his arboreal memoir, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, that “to enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed.”
Deakin’s own life is proof of that statement.
Before he died in 2006 at age 63 (just after finishing this book), Deakin was celebrated as England’s contemporary version of Henry David Thoreau. This says much about the reverance with which Deakin is regarded, but in actuality the comparison discounts the novelty of his approach.
One of the hallmarks of Deakin’s writing is his unbridled, youthful exuberance. He would do practically anything to gain a different, fresh angle on his subject, whether it meant crawling through mud on all fours, swimming a forest-girded waterway naked, exploring a moonrise by traipsing into spooky black darkness, or encyclopedically chronicling the myriad ways a particular forest planted the seed that helped human society to grow.
Eccentric behavior for a middle-age man?
Deakin has been described as such. It seems justified. After all, this is a man who wrote from a 450-year-old Elizabethan cottage on a piece of Suffolk property called Walnut Tree Farm, surrounded, fittingly, by its own moat.
Along with his love of feral and manicured greenery and, of course, the creatures inhabiting it, he was intrigued with the effects of water on the human spirit. Prior to “Wildwood,” he gained critical praise for “Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain” (a book inspired, in part, by the John Cheever story, “The Swimmer.”) Deakin’s research deposited him in the Atlantic, mountain lakes, garden ponds, canals, and quarries.
In “Wildwood,” he goes even deeper.
Deakin has a keen knack for combining observations about ecology with a conversational, limerick-style pacing often associated with adventure travel. He further highlights his nature writing with notations about historical human drama.
He is as giddy musing about the establishment of new walnut groves in England and France as he is exploring the origin of the apple in Kyrgyzstan (the land where the armies of Genghis Khan once plundered and marched).
Deakin tells us that he has set out “on a quest for the residual magic of trees and wood that still touches most of us not far beneath the surface of our daily lives.”
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.
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.