On Roger Deakin

Back in the summer a new community interest company (CIC) self-described arts bookshop and work space called Typeset opened in Rotherham’s High Street – but this high street is the antithesis of most high streets in having only independent shops and businesses. It’s also really rather beautiful as high streets go.

So on the day it opened, I popped into Typeset, had a browse and happily found a secondhand copy of Roger Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. I read and very much enjoyed both Waterlog (1999) and Wildwood (2007) shortly after their publication, though the enjoyment of the latter was dampened by the fact that Deakin had died in 2006, at the age of 63. In the back of my mind somewhere was the thought that one day I would get round to reading Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, also posthumously published (in 2008), so I was very pleased to come across a copy, almost as if it had come to me.

The book consists of a selection, arranged from January to December, from Deakin’s notebooks, edited by his partner Alison Hastie and his friend Terence Blacker. Deakin’s home, in Mellis, north Suffolk, was an Elizabethan timber-framed house which he bought when it was in a state of dereliction in the late Sixties and then restored. His account of swimming in its moat is one of the highlights of Waterlog. The joy of the book, for me, lies in the variety of the entries, from nature notes and philosophical vignettes to descriptions of battles with bureaucracy, coppicing, conversations had in meetings or on walks with acquaintances, and much else. Here are a few examples:

The basic idea of consideration is at the heart of all true conservation. You act out of consideration, out of fellow feeling, for other living things, and other people. Most of the degradation of our land, air and water is caused by selfishness. (p.60)

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The human relationship with farm animals is fundamentally a deceit. It is a betrayal of the animals’ trust, since all the time, as the farmer nurtures them, and their trust in him deepens, he is concealing in his heart a murderous intention. (p.62)

*

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring, and I turn towards the sun. My skin even begins to look more like bark every day. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut; an English walnut, Juglans regia, the tree with the greatest canopy. (p.69)

*

The experience of skating is so intense that it stays with you. The cold frosty wind rushes into your face, up your nostrils. The whole pond becomes a musical instrument, with the ice as its sounding board. There is a music of skates, a rhythmic ‘swish’ as the blades cut through the virgin surface of the black ice.

[. . .]

The world is made vivid by the reflected light of snow and ice. Skating is one of those words that may be relied upon to trigger a flood of memories. (p.77)

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Some of these thoughts may be scarcely original, but it is the care which Deakin put into their expression, and the economy of words used, that appeal so much to me. His erudition could so easily have tripped into mansplaining, as plenty of his ‘New Nature Writing’ contemporaries’ did. (Incidentally, I like to think and hope that mine is the last English/British generation of men that was instilled at a young age with an innate propensity – and pomposity – to mansplain at every opportunity; in fact, I still hear and see myself doing it regularly, in spite of my attempts to check such atrocious behaviour. My daughter rightly called me out on it last week, despite – and because of – my protestation that there is a fine difference between dadsplaining and mansplaining . . .)

In many ways, the book reminds me of Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, which is as fine a book of a similar kind as any I’ve ever read, with an awareness of mortality underpinning both. For me, reading Deakin’s words is the right experience at the right time – now I am old enough to appreciate what he was on about, and, moreover, just when I had started to slip into yet another slough of despond.

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Postscript: I went into Typeset this lunchtime and found a 1987 King Penguin edition of Joseph Brodsky’s selected essays, Less Than One, so things are definitely looking up.

5 thoughts on “On Roger Deakin

  1. Matthew, I haven’t read this Deakin but agree completely about the moat swim in Waterlog, and Jarman’s book, which I read for the first time a few months ago. Extraordinary.

  2. I found this very interesting. I definitely agree with is views on human relationships with farm animals is deceitful. I could never understand how humans can ‘fatten the pig before the kill’. Thank you for introducing Roger Deakin.

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