An English scribbly bark
Dec 18th 2008
From The Economist print edition
ROGER DEAKIN, who died in 2006, played a large part in the current revival of writing about nature and landscape in Britain. He did not publish much during his life—a book about trees and their spiritual significance called “Wildwood”, and another about swimming in rivers and ponds, “Waterlog”. Yet those two slim books managed to draw the attention of readers towards things that were either new or neglected: the spell that the natural world can cast on the urban imagination; the teeming variety of the modest English countryside and the oddly unexplored landscape of Deakin’s home territory, that part of England known as East Anglia.
“Notes From Walnut Tree Farm” is presented as an account of a single rural year, but was actually assembled from six years’ worth of diaries. It begins as it goes on: Deakin lying full length on the ground in the fields and meadows around his ancient oak-framed farmhouse. He cuts away at troublesome roots, investigating and naming tiny insects. He records the shapes and behaviour of the unregarded plants that other people might call weeds and he traces the ecology of a village green dating back to the tenth century.
All rural cultures are intensely local. Here it seems is the record of a mind tuned by the special village character of what Bishop Hall, a 17th-century writer, described as the “sweet and civil county” of Suffolk. In fact, Deakin sprang from a quite different sort of world.
He was brought up in a grey north-London suburb. His early career was metropolitan: he had been an advertising executive, and a successful one. He had travelled widely—places such as Kyrgyzstan and Kurdistan find several mentions in these diaries. He made films and radio documentaries. And even after buying the rural ruin that he rebuilt and named Walnut Tree Farm, there was still his London flat in fashionable Belsize Park to fall back upon.
London and Suffolk are actually close neighbours, no more distant than Connecticut and New York City. “Notes From Walnut Tree Farm” keeps reminding us that England is small and that even the most remote village is not very remote. In England a large town is never far distant; rural and urban are connected. So we find Deakin taking a break from the Suffolk wind and hooting owls, and falling asleep in the “throbbing silence” of central London. He notices a country spider on his rucksack in Museum Street: “it stays with me somehow all the way home on the train to Suffolk, and escapes onto my study desk, then out into the garden through the open window.”
There is a tradition of nature writing that is really writing about how an individual should live, and how human society might be organised. It is the tradition of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” (which this book echoes in form). Deakin has had a hand in reinvigorating that tradition in England, along with colleagues. So in these diaries there is mention of his friend and neighbour, Richard Mabey, who tackled East Anglia and the spiritual relation of man and place in his book “Nature Cure”. He pays several visits to Ronald Blythe, the oldest and subtlest of the Anglians. And there are trips with Robert Macfarlane, a Cambridge academic who scored a big commercial hit with his recent book “The Wild Places”, philosophising on the possibility of wildness in a world that seems to have shrunk.
There is less philosophising here, but plenty of close-up scrutiny of pond-living beetles, spiders and flies, petals and pollens, and above all (literally as well as imaginatively) trees. For Deakin, trees are almost an alternative society, and timber is the reserve currency of his imaginative life. “Cutting up firewood, I came across a stem of elm wonderfully inlaid with the workings of a beetle,” he writes, “an English scribbly bark.”
This book is a vivid unguarded work, the material not necessarily intended for publication. It betrays how the conservationist in us may well be driven by some buried feelings of loss. In Deakin’s case it was the loss of his father, who one day in the writer’s youth simply did not return home. “My father had been found dead, on a Bakerloo Line tube train at Euston Square station...Thus did I acquire my sense of loss—a deep-seated feeling that has followed me around all my life and that I’ve never shaken off.” A powerful mental picture, even though the Bakerloo does not in fact go to Euston Square.