Friday, 31 July 2009

Wildwood by Roger Deakin

Wildwood, a sort of sequel to Waterlog, is a similar combination of memoir, history, and travel writing that explores our relationship with trees and wood. Deakin separates the book into four sections. Roots considers the significance of wood in our daily lives, the experience of living with wooden furniture and in wooden structures, and Deakin’s joy in working with wood. Sapwood focuses on British woods and the way they are used and enjoyed by the people who live in and near them. Driftwood explores woods abroad, particularly in Australia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Heartwood returns to Suffolk, to Deakin’s life with the trees and hedges around his home, the wood that built his house, became his furniture and provided scope for work and recreation.

Like Waterlog, this is full of fascinating information, of botany, folklore and social history, although I found it lacked the lyrical quality of the previous book. However, as Roger Deakin died very shortly after submitting the manuscript, it seems unfair to cavil at minor shortcomings, and my view may be due to a greater personal relationship with water than with wood. It’s a book with a vast breadth of knowledge often focused precisely on details, giving a sense of expansive wisdom and specific expertise, and opening up new worlds to the reader – who else has visited the walnut harvest in Kyrgyzstan, or written about it so enthrallingly? One of the episodes in the book concerns Deakin’s school trips to the New Forest with his biology teacher, during which they would map the animal and plant life of a small area; the scientific habit clearly stayed with him, as his affectionate scrutiny compasses not only the tree, but the insects, animals, plants, people and economies surrounding it and depending on it. To see all this is a rare talent in itself; to write well about it seems exceptional to me.

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