An English Scribbly Bark

Book Review: Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin

ROGER Deakin, who died prematurely 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 the culture of unofficial swimming, Waterlog. Yet those two books (both unexpected if minor commercial successes) managed to draw the attention of readers towards some 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, the eastern part of England known as East Anglia.

Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is a posthumous book, presented as if an account of a single rural year, but actually assembled from six years’ worth of diaries. It begins as it goes on: Roger Deakin in the fields and meadows around his ancient oak-framed farmhouse, lying full length upon the ground. He is cutting away at some troublesome roots, or later, investigating and naming tiny insects, recording the shapes and behaviours of the unregarded plants that other people might call weeds, or tracing the ecology of a ten-century old village green.

All rural cultures are intensely local: here it seems is the record of a mind tuned by the special village character of what the 17th-century writer Bishop Hall described as the ‘sweet and civil county’ of Suffolk. Yet in fact Roger Deakin sprang from a quite different sort of world.

Deakin 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 was a maker of films and radio documentaries. And even after buying the rural ruin that he rebuilt and named Walnut Tree Farm, there was still his London apartment 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; a motorway is usually audible. The rural and the urban are connected. So we find Deakin rummaging through some mouldering timber in one of his many farmyard sheds, timber that it turns out he has brought from the props store of a London film studio. We find him taking a break from the Suffolk wind and the hoots of owls, and falling asleep in the ‘throbbing silence’ of central London. He notices a ‘country spider’ upon his rucksack in Museum Street: ‘it stays with me somehow all the way home on the train to Suffolk, and escapes on to 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 the individual should live, and how human society might be organised. It is the tradition of Thoreau’s Walden (which this book echoes in form). Deakin has had a hand in re-invigorating that tradition in England, along with colleagues. So in these diaries we hear of his friend and neighbour Richard Mabey, for example, who tackled East Anglia and the spiritual relation of man and place in his book Nature Cure. There are several visits to Ronald Blythe, the oldest and subtlest of the Anglians. And 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 – the 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 much that might otherwise have remained hidden – the longing that can often be found in nature writing, inventing as well as seeing what the writer needs to find in his chosen scene.

It also betrays how the conservationist in us may well be driven by some buried feelings of loss and injustice. In Deakin’s case that loss 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.’

An abrupt and powerful mental picture – even though the Bakerloo Line does not in fact go to Euston Square.

First published here.