I’m going to stick my neck out from the start and say that to me, Wildwood is one of the finest pieces of English prose I’ve ever read. Roger Deakin, who died in 2006 at the age of 63, was a nature writer, documentary maker, and environmental activist, whose work helped set the tone both for his peers and those who came after him. Wildwood followed his first full length book, 1999’s Waterlog, which documented his exploration of wild swimming in Britain, and to me its influence is more encompassing, investigating as it does the universal relationship between mankind and trees. Published at the time of his death, this book is a poignant and direct reminder of what the world was losing in the shape of its author.
Wildwood begins, fittingly, with a tantalisingly short retelling of Roger’s discovery, purchase, and restoration of his home at Walnut Tree Farm in Suffolk. It’s a simply written but beautiful account, as he wrestles the house from the undergrowth industriously reclaiming the farm for itself, and in another world this would have justifiably commanded a whole book to itself. The charm of Wildwood is encapsulated perfectly within these first few pages, however. It’s the simplicity of the prose that gives it potency. Roger writes in such a way that the reader feels an empathy with the man and his home. This writing is egalitarian in its tone; undogmatic. It is the conversation over the fence with a neighbour, a casual pint at the bar with an old friend. Roger has such command over prose and subject that he has no need to beat the reader over the head with his intellect; a rare and disarming talent.
Over the course of the book we learn of school botany camps spent in the New Forest; of Slow Worms apprehended in a railway-line no man’s land and traded in class; of the collection of huts and old cars scattered around Roger’s land, each gently converging with nature, providing portals into which he climbed for work, sleep, contemplation, or just to be closer to the elements.
This book is no bucolic celebration of Britain or its quirkiness however. We learn of the painstaking and intensive process of finding and producing Walnut trim for Jaguar cars in Coventry, and visit the studios of artists David Nash and John Wolseley in the Welsh hills and Australian forests, respectively. The narrative takes in the Tien Shan mountain range of Kazakhstan where the reader learns of the journey taken through time and geography of the Apple Tree, south to Kyrgyzstan and ancient Walnut Forests, and out to Tasmania to see some of the oldest surviving natural woodland in the world.
Throughout the book we are introduced to artists and scientists, craftspeople, friends, and farmers. All have an intriguing and valuable story to tell, of how we are shaped by our world as much as we shape it. From the construction of a living shelter to the story of David Nash’s famous ‘Ash Dome’ sculpture; to toolmakers, hedge layers, and even the coal miners of the Forest of Dean; this book teaches us about life, death, and resurrection, about temporality and permanence. In doing so we learn of the life of Roger Deakin, and from its telling in turn we learn of the value of observing the everyday. From the sound of rain on the roof, scratching of birds on the window ledge, the slow progress of saplings in the field margins, in these we can see life at its most understated, and at its most sublime. In these we can still see the reflections of Roger.
Roger died of a cancer which crept into his body and cruelly ravaged it, stealing him from those who loved him – including many like myself who had never met him. I am unashamed to say I cried like a child when I learnt of his death. To me, his passing was a theft for the countryside, for the English language, and for conservationists the world over. The reason his death affected me so completely is made evident in the reading of this book: Roger was a champion for the idiosyncratic or understated, for the quiet beauty of the world around us, and the unexpected magnificence of all those within it who have a passion. Wildwood isn’t just the story of trees; it is the story of the human relationship with the world.
Anchored in the foundations of Suffolk, it returns periodically to the fulcrum of stability that Walnut Tree Farm was for the writer. A key theme of the book is the web of roots which Roger put down at his home, from where all his adventures started and ultimately finished. I believe that in the end he died at home, and this seems fitting. At the beginning of this book we learn of Roger’s struggle to prise his farm back from ruin, and in return it protected him for the rest of his days. Wildwood forms the last complete work of his life (followed posthumously by Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, a collection of diary entries), and as a parting gift it could not be more fitting or more sorrowful. It is a work of beauty, an affirmation of the spirit of a human being. I have worn out several copies of this book over the last 11 years, and given more as gifts. It is the first thing I pack when I travel, and is my favourite companion at home, on a journey, or sitting with a quiet pint. I can hear his voice in the words, and feel his influence in the world around me, more and more as the years go by. If you only ever read one nature book in your life, make it this one, and in doing so, make a friend.