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Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! and all Grovely!

By (May 1, 2009) No Comment

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

by Roger Deakin
Free Press, 2009

wildwoodRoger Deakin, who died not long after completing Wildwood, was a fanatic. Towards the end of this book he admits it. “I have the kind of weakness for wood other people have for puppies or chocolates.” This confession leads him into a typically inconclusive speculation about the origin of his addiction: “Perhaps it is some hidden pheremone in the wood itself that turns my brain, but, as in a dream, I find myself buying the stuff.”

He is about to become the victim of another impulse. Lured into buying wood in all its irresistible varieties, he audibly salivates as he enters a wood yard and homes in on the commodities. “First, the entire trunk of a beech.” Well no surprises there, the reader might think. “Next, I spot a stack of burr oak.” Ah yes, we could have seen that coming. Burr oak. Notorious impulse purchase. “Instantly lost in the psychedelic wonders of its rioting grain,” Deakin is a slave to its beauty. Assailed by visions of the plates and egg cups he can fashion out of it on his lathe, he is carpentry’s answer to Michelangelo fixated on a stone in the quarry at Carrera. But the mania has only just begun. “I have soon added to my order four massive hunks of deep-red turkey oak, a pair of elms, and a pair…” At which point, who would not draw a discreet veil over the scene, recognizing the torments of the addict.

Like a benign Gollum, Deakin stares at us from the dustcover, a warning to all those who believe that Nature can be a harmless passion, something gentle, semi-senile, like the meditations of Thoreau. His “weakness” is a full-blown passion, and it took him further than any shallow tree hugger, as far as Australia and Central Asia in space, but also beyond his own humanity in time, in fact beyond life itself to a kind of near death experience. One of his recurring themes is the spell nature casts on him whenever he sleeps outdoors. He revels in the escape from his house to the solitude of a shepherd’s hut. Here, in the shadow of a rookery, with the rain pattering on the roof and woken briefly by the snuffling of deer or badgers, Deakin enters a kind of trance, he sleeps “coffined by pine”:

What is it about being enclosed by wood that is so comforting? Is this some kind of Reichian orgone box? Or is it simply a matter of feng shui: that the bed is oriented in the right way for sleep? […] It is a version of the wild, and always a return: every cabin is a version of all other cabins, dens, tree houses and nests.

the reviewer, consumed by vegetation near Notting Hill

And yet he is not merely the kind of recluse such passages suggest. Every time Deakin leaves his shepherd’s hut it is to find other enthusiasts of what the Chinese call the “fifth element,” whether they are artists working with driftwood, or skilled woodsmen, or naturalists hooked on tree husbandry, or even slightly crazy “lardy women of a certain age” (their own description of themselves) from Cheltenham, who call themselves “Gourmet Witches” and gather in the wood to sit under trees “playing flutes or recorders…” An informant tells him how they “danced to a recorded tape before arranging themselves into the shape of a star and lying together under the trees gazing up at the emerging night sky, keenly observed from the long grass of the ridge by an ill-concealed group of Borstal boys from the nearby institution.”

He doesn’t go into any further explanation for the keenness of the boys, but there is a constant suggestion of forbidden possibilities in the wood. It’s a place where, in the days of cramped living conditions, lovers would go to get some privacy for their lovemaking, and no doubt they would also have been spied upon.

The lardy Cheltenham ladies forming a star on the floor of the wood while being ogled by peeping Toms are an example of Deakin at his best. He can ramble a lot, and at times he is the master of the unanswerable question – “How does a moth experience the swooning scent of so many bluebells?” – and even of the slightly pretentious aside, but he knows the wood’s intimacy, and its sense of a different time, beyond the measured limits of modernity. We forgive him the lapses and even the rambling, because these are the necessary conditions for his flights. Where else could one read such a gorgeous account of, say, the conversations between rooks in a rookery, or understand so clearly the passion Nabokov had for butterflies? The naturalist in Deakin ignores the pre-ordained proprieties of writing and happily veers off onto seemingly unrelated topics. And he talks about trees in his own eccentric way. At one point he even refers to their “stroppiness.” He notices the way the architects of the Greek temples, like the creators of Stonehenge, imitated wood and the methods of carpentry. He sees wood everywhere. He doesn’t need to hug the stuff, or to simulate a love for the rainforests, because his passion is real and urgent.

Now that he’s dead, Deakin is a little like the dodo in relation to the dodo tree. The tree has lost its means of propagation since the passing of the dodo, and there have been fears for its survival beyond the life span of trees that were saplings when the flightless bird was still around. No one else could propagate the meanings of trees quite like Deakin.

I shall offer just one instance, his description of Oak Apple Day in the village of Great Wishford. There is a complex tale here of people’s rights over a wood, opposed by the local aristocracy and reasserted by the villagers in an annual celebration involving oak branches. At dawn the oak is cut and hung from the church tower and from the doors of the houses. Then the villagers are supposed to dance the six miles to Salisbury – disappointingly, they hop on a bus instead – and shout the name of the wood: “Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! and all Grovely!” It’s a formula reminiscent of Julian of Norwich with her “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well” and somehow the redundancy works. Deakin makes comparisons with Frazier’s Golden Bough, and fancies himself as the anthropologist of the whole event. Typically, he decides to sleep up in the wood the night before the oak is brought down, and a passage of great beauty results. Here he is disturbed in the middle of the night:

…I was woken by footfalls on the track below. Someone walked right by me in the dark and disappeared into the wood. It was twenty to four and I was too comfortable to stir. A poacher? Rustic insomniac? At ten to four the first light began to glimmer, and a few rooks left the wood through a dense mist. The bats were still flying as the first skylarks rose above the fields below. I lay listening to the cuckoo. Then, at five minutes to four, the rough band struck up in the village below: a cacophony of everything noisy that would serve to wake the citizenry. It was not a pretty sound that rose up the hill through the mist. Bass drum, hunting horn, saucepan lids, football rattles and the old church bell on a trolley were all trundled in ragged procession from house to house and vigorously sounded until the lights came on. It was all trick and no treat.

The authentic eccentricity is there, in the din that issues from the village and drowns out the sound of the larks and the cuckoo. Yet even the cuckoo itself and the trolley suggest the way things are going, towards a chaotic assertion of spontaneity, almost of madness. Chaucer even uses the expression “wood” to mean mad in the sense of angry. The prose moves naturally from here through the poetry of John Clare, the indignant complaints of Cobbett on his rural rides, and at last to Deakin’s own confusion by the time he reaches Salisbury:

I could no longer tell is I was pagan or Christian, Tory or Old Labour, royalist or republican. But after another visit to the beer tent on the Oak Apple Field, I decided it must be the best of all of them at once, like everyone else in Great Wishford.

A greem dream: woods near Bath, England

All conflicts are dissolved. Pure, spontaneous human disorder has the same effect as the Carnival in displacing the powers that be and enthroning the Lord of Misrule. At a time when the world’s forests are in peril it is easy to see this transcendence of political discord as a kind of benediction. Wildwood is never an explicit tract, it hardly mentions the green movement or stops to preach about the risks to the world’s environment. It’s more subtle than any of that. There’s none of Leonard Cohen’s anger when he snarled, in the guise of a modern Jeremiah, “Take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture.” The feeling, after reading Wildwood, is that it’s obvious what is happening: the woods are a necessary complement to culture, and without them poetry, love, freedom and the planet itself, will quickly die.

Bryn Haworth was born in Essex, and now lives in London where he is our correspondent on the literary scene. He is writing a novel and has recently finished a long collection of poems known simply as Obscure Poem.

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