Here, published for the first time in the United States, is the last book by Roger Deakin, famed British nature writer and icon of the environmentalist movement. In Deakin's glorious meditation on wood, the "fifth element" -- as it exists in nature, in our culture, and in our souls -- the reader accompanies Deakin through the woods of Britain, Europe, Kazakhstan, and Australia in search of what lies behind man's profound and enduring connection with trees.
Deakin lives in forest shacks, goes "coppicing" in Suffolk, swims beneath the walnut trees of the Haut-Languedoc, and hunts bushplums with Aboriginal women in the outback. Along the way, he ferrets out the mysteries of woods, detailing the life stories of the timber beams composing his Elizabethan house and searching for the origin of the apple.
As the world's forests are whittled away, Deakin's sparkling prose evokes woodlands anarchic with life, rendering each tree as an individual, living being. At once a traveler's tale and a splendid work of natural history, Wildwood reveals, amid the world's marvelous diversity, that which is universal in human experience.
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Roger Deakin, who died in August 2006, shortly after completing the manuscript for Wildwood, was a writer, broadcaster, and filmmaker. His previous book, Waterlog, recounts his swimming adventures and has been hailed as a classic of nature writing.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
While the rest of the world has been playing musical chairs all around me, I have stayed put in the same house for more than half my life. It's not that I don't like to wander, but somehow I feel easier in my freewheeling knowing that this place is here, a fixed point. I am located by it, just as Donne's lovers are the twin points of compasses in his poem A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning:
Thy firmness draws my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
The adventures of my mother's family, the Woods, all nine of them, were the stuff of my bedtime stories. My mother never seemed to read to me but recounted instead the many tales of the Wood tribe. I grew up in a strictly oral tradition of home-grown folklore peopled almost entirely by my mother's siblings. Welsh Grandma Jones, silver-haired Grandpa Wood, with his one left hand and a steel hook for his right, two dashing uncles and four aunts. My grandparents had upheld our sylvan traditions by christening two of them Ivy Wood and Violet Wood. My mother was always thankful nobody had thought of Primrose.
Wood family history is ingrained in me, just as memory and history are ingrained into the timbers of Walnut Tree Farm. Each post and beam has its own particular story and once grew free. If you take a cross-section of any beam, close study of the pattern of its annual rings by a dendrochronologist would reveal exactly when it grew up from the acorn or the coppice stool, and exactly when it was cut down.
The house sits at a dizzy 174 feet above sea level, enough to keep my patch islanded when the promised flood comes. But I am part-islanded already by a moat and a round cattle pond that juts out into the common, one of twenty-four that are strung around it and connected by an ancient system of moats and drains. The jungled hedges that surround my four meadows comprise a necessary rampart to the winds that cut across the open wheat prairies beyond. They have vaulted the ditches, creating a secret leaf-mould world of ferny tunnels. There's a little wood too, and an old droving road that flanks the land to the west.
All of this lies on the shores of a great inland sea of rippling grasses that rises like a tide towards haymaking in July, obscuring my neighbour's farm on its far side. It stretches a mile to the west of this place, the biggest grazing common in Suffolk. So, although the sea is twenty-five miles due east at Walberswick, I can still enjoy some of the pleasures of living beside it: the big skies and wide, dramatic sunsets. In Suffolk we have daydream mountains too: the volcanic cumulus clouds of harvest time.
Why have I stayed so long? Not because I was born here or have Suffolk roots, but because of all the hard work, and the accumulated history. I mean my own, mixed up with the people I love. For three years I taught English at the old grammar school in Diss, putting more roots down among the local students and families who became my friends. There is no more intimate way of getting to know your neighbours than by teaching their children. Then there were the Barsham Fairs and the Waveney Clarion, the community newspaper of the Waveney Valley, which I helped write, plan and distribute, as a whole extended family of us quasi-hippies did, from Diss to Bungay to Beccles to Lowestoft. The rural culture we built together then during the 1970s and early 1980s, based firmly on the values of the Whole Earth Catalogue, Friends of the Earth, Cobbett's Cottage Economy and John Seymour's The Fat of the Land, flushed out all the pioneer immigrants busy settling in Suffolk - rough carpenters, dirt farmers, musicians, poets, ditchdiggers and drivers of timber-framed Morris Minor estate cars - and put us all to work together building what for a golden moment became a grand tradition of Suffolk fairs, ephemeral, dreamlike, gypsyish shanty capitals in fields full of folk. Again, it was work - creative, bold, imaginative but at the same time hard, manual and physical - that drew us together. A shared experience of risk too: you never knew what the weather would do or if anyone would turn up at the gate and pay for it all. Dancing and music played a big part. We had our own local heroes, our own Suffolk Bob Dylans and Willie Nelsons, and any number of ceilidh bands sawing away in village halls on Friday nights.
The house was a ruin when I found it in 1969. I noticed a chimney rising just above the treetops of a spinney of ash, maple, hazel, elder, blackthorn, ivy and bramble, and what was left of a cottage orchard of walnut, greengage and apple. Like everyone else in the village, Arthur Cousins, the owner, clearly thought the house had crept away to hide itself and discreetly die, like an old cat. He lived across the fields at Cowpasture Farm with his daughters Beryl and Precious, keeping pigs in the old house downstairs, chickens upstairs. The roof was a patchwork of flapping corrugated iron, and the remaining damp, composting thatch was so verdant with grass and moss it could have been turf. I love ruins because they are always doing what everything really wants to do all the time: returning themselves to the earth, melting back into the landscape. And though it is long since I moved in, nature has refused to relinquish all kinds of ancient rights of way through the place.
For several weeks I paid court to Arthur at Cowpasture Farm, and eventually he consented to sell me the house and twelve acres. We went on to become the best of friends, even sharing Heather, a big-eyed Guernsey house-cow, whom we took turns to milk. Arthur was one of the last generation of the old Suffolk horse men. For most of his life he had been an independent timber-hauler with his own gang of heavy horses and carts, plying the roads between Norwich and Ipswich, hauling timber from the woods to the sawmills, timber yards and shippers. He worked hard, saved up and bought his farm before the war, when land was cheap. He still hung hagstones, Suffolk's flint version of the evil eye, in his stables and cowsheds to ward off the nightmare who might disturb his animals as they slept in their stalls. He was my tutor in husbandry, animal lore and village politics.
Slowly, I stripped the house to its skeleton of oak, chestnut and ash, repairing it with oak timbers gleaned from a barn one of the local farmers had demolished. I lived in the back of a Volkswagen van for a while, then made a bivouac around the big central fireplace and slept beside a wood fire with two cats for company. The hearth became the most sacred, numinous place in the house. It lies at its centre, and is the only part that still opens to the skies. In spring, I moved upstairs into what felt like a tree house, sleeping under the stars as I repaired the open rafters in a perch with a canvas roof. Soon the wood-pigeons roosting in the ash tree at eye level grew used to me. The tree felt then, as it does now, like a guardian of the house, arching up over the roof in a kind of embrace, and I fought the council building inspector tooth and nail to retain it.
I found myself then, as I still do deep down, in love with the place as a ruin and therefore partly at odds with myself as its healer. I liked the way the wattle-and-daub walls, baked by the sun to a biscuit, were cratered all over where they faced south, like the peepholes of a Yemeni city, by nesting mason bees or solitary wasps. I appreciated the inquisitive tendrils of ivy that poked their heads in through the cracks in the rotted windows, fogged green with algae, patterned by questing snails. I welcomed the sparrows and starlings fidgeting in the thatch or under the tin, and the bats that later flitted through the tented open rafters as I lay dozing in bed, limbs aching sweetly from a long day's labour. I wanted to repair the walls, but at the same time to foster the passepartout menagerie that refused to recognize them. Somehow, through the sum of minor inefficiencies in a handmade wood-framed house, I succeeded.
Having personally shaped or repaired every single one, I have ended up on terms of the greatest intimacy with all the beams, posts and pegged joints in the place. I have perhaps also earned some kinship with the people who, twenty years or so before Shakespeare was born, originally built the house and probably dug out the moat. Uncovering the carpenters' coded inscriptions on the rafters and floor beams was like finding a lost manuscript. They were carved when the oak or sweet chestnut was still green and the house under prefabricated construction in a kind of kit form at the carpenters' shop, ready to be carted to the site and raised, whole walls at a time, by the combined muscle of dozens of villagers. The proportions of everything, measured in feet and inches, impressed on me the organic nature of the entire structure. The proportions of each room, and of the house as a whole, were predicated on the natural proportions of the trees available. Suffolk houses like mine tend to be about eighteen feet wide, because that is about the average limit of the straight run of the trunk of a youngish oak suitable in girth for making a major crossbeam of eight inches by seven. The bigger barns tend to twenty-one feet wide, with slightly bigger timbers. Uprights too are of tree height, the idea being to select trees or coppice poles of about the right cross-section, so they can be squared with an adze with the minimum of work.
This is the beam count in my house. Kitchen: 44. Sitting room: 50. Study: 32. Upstairs landing, bathroom and study: 22. Small bedroom: 23. Big bedroom: 72. Total: 243. If I add all 30 hidden beams in the kitchen, as well as 50-odd rafters, the total is 323 beams. So some 300 trees were felled to build this house: a small wood. The bark is still on many of these timbers after 400 years, and so is the sapwood here and there. The timber was always worked in its green, unseasoned condition, when it is easiest to cut, drill or shape into joints. Once assembled into the hardwood frame, the timbers would gradually season in situ, often twisting or curving as they did so and creatin...
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