"Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees"
by Roger Deakin
Reading history and reviews
Finished in 2008This is another book that's taken a long time to read, I started back at the end of September and finally finished it at the beginning of December. But that doesn't mean it was a bad book - without a real narrative thread, it's the kind of book that lends itself to dipping in and out of. Reading it has been a bit like going on a meandering journey through an imaginary landscape made up not just of places, but also trees, people, animals and ideas, and like his previous book Waterlog there are sections that I really wanted to take my time over and really savour.
It's difficult to say concisely what this book is about. It isn't just about trees, and it's not a guidebook - it's really a celebration of people's relationships with trees and forests, and with wood as a material. It's about how people relate to trees in cultural, spiritual, environmental and practical ways - for example as sources of materials for building and making things (utensils, houses, cars), as sources of food for animals and themselves, and as things that need to be maintained and looked after.
I like that while Deakin has a romantic streak and sees magic in both trees and wood, he also talks about the practicalities of maintaining the trees and the forests and the hard work it can involve. I enjoyed the fact that he writes from his own personal experiences of maintaining trees and hedges, woodworking, growing fruit trees. There is a depth of knowledge and feeling that is often missing from books where the authors have taken more of a passing interest (however heartfelt) just for the purpose of writing a book. "Wildwood" describes a substantial, practical and even-handed relationship between man and nature, a world where people live in partnership with the trees: management of the forests is essential if they are to be used sustainably as sources of food, materials and fuel, and if they are mismanaged then both forests and people will suffer. With this comes a recognition that change is inevitable, and that conserving the forests as a public resource while still exploiting them is an ongoing challenge.
Deakin's style is low-key but friendly. There's no polemic: instead, his ethusiasm for and knowledge of trees is implicit through the entire book. When writes about the construction of "benders" (tent-like shelters made from lengths of supple wood bent into arches), or the work of "coppicing" trees and "plashing" a hedgerow (respectively, cutting trees down to stumps to harvest the wood, and weaving together branches in the hedge to form an impenetrable barrier), it's without any real introduction - almost as if Deakin credits the reader with sufficient where-with-all to go and find out about the technical details themselves, since this book isn't about that stuff.
Like "Waterlog" the book gave me a sense of life in a different Britain to one that I know, where people have a different relationship to the land. However, this book extends beyond Britain, to Australia and Eastern Europe. One of the most memorable sections describes a journey that begins with a search for the ancestors of apples in the Tien Shan mountains of Khazakstan and ends with Deakin travelling through the walnut forests of Kyrgystan.
In other parts of the book he touches on such diverse topics as green men, the use of wood veneers in Jaguar motor cars, observing moths at night in the forest, and David Nash's "Wooden Boulder" (a wandering artwork that floated down a river and into an estuary, and which the artist periodically goes in search of by boat). Along the way Deakin throws out all kinds of fascinating facts inspired by the things he's describing. I also enjoyed his observations, which often reminded me of my own experiences - for example, seeing birds and plants in foreign lands that reminded him of the wildlife back home in Britain, or his hoarding of wood for woodworking (like Kyle's hoarding of fabric for sewing, or my hoarding of books).
I suppose that it was fitting that a book about trees should take a while to read, since the rhythm of the lives of trees themselves are much slower than those of people like me. Sadly Roger Deakin died in August 2006 at age 63 shortly after completing the manuscript for "WildWood" (you can read an obituary in the Guardian), but this book and "Waterlog" (with their love for living in and with nature) form a great legacy to leave behind.