Part Walden, part Road to Oxiana: The late British natural-history writer Deakin (Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, 1999) serves up an elegant meditation on trees and why they matter.
Put it down to the Druids and the Green Man, but folks back in the mother country love all things tree-related. They like toads, moles, sheep and suchlike critters, too, whence the deserved centrality of The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit and the Pooh quartet, among other celebrations of country living. As Deakin puts it, they like these things perhaps precisely because they have lost so much of their rural heritage in recent decades, so that “the British generally take a correspondingly greater interest in what trees and woods they still have left.” Deakin, a literate chap, adds Gerald Manley Hopkins, Henry David Thoreau and Patrick Leigh Fermor to the mix, plus the Whole Earth Catalog, under whose influence he set about on an exercise in hippie communard living back in the day. But he was no latecomer. As he writes, he comes from a long, proud tradition of forest people, with fitting names in the family tree such as Wood and Greenwood, and forebears who belonged to the woodland-anarchist tradition of Robin Hood. To trust these pages, Deakin knows how to coppice and pollard; he writes lovingly of coops and sheds, moths and cornfields, oaks and apples. Not content to remain imprisoned in his lime-tree bower, Deakin departs midway through for a tour of other lands and other trees, venturing to East Anglia, France, Australia and Central Asia. Once the game is afoot, he writes with the studied breathlessness of David Attenborough (“We threaded our way off piste through more of the termite stalactites towards the ten-foot bushes, which, sure enough, were covered in ripe black fruit the size of small olives”) and communicates that he’s having the time of his life.
A companion to Waterlog, this will hopefully bring Deakin to the attention of American readers, who will find him a kindred spirit to Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry and other celebrants of the land.