Over the last few weeks, I have been reading various prose about nature and two in particular captured my interest – first, The Wild Places (2007) by Robert Macfarlane and second Wildwood (2008) by Roger Deakin who acted as mentor and companion to Macfarlane in his search for the remaining wild places of Britain. It is the second of these that is the subject of this post.
I love trees and photograph them regularly. There are so many aspects to a tree – they are beautiful, change significantly through the seasons and for me, on Skye, reflect the essence of the Island. Indeed, it was when I was photographing a lone silver birch that I became aware of the being of the tree.
Roger Deakin, who died shortly after he finished Wildwood recorded his aim in the book as follows:
“A writer needs a strong passion to change things, not just to reflect or report them as they are. Mine is to promote a feeling for the importance of trees through a greater understanding of them, so that people don’t just think of ‘trees’ as they mostly do now, but of each individual tree, and each kind of tree.” (Deakin 2008 Inside Front Cover).
Deakin takes us on a journey that begins at his house, a Tudor oak-framed farmhouse, Walnut Tree Farm in Suffolk, that he lovingly restored. The house is constructed of over 320 oak, chestnut and ash beams – Deakin speculates that it would have therefore involved the felling of some 300 trees – a small wood. He is the master of detail and explains that Suffolk houses are quite naturally predicated in terms of size on the raw materials. Hence, they tend to be eighteen feet wide being the length of a young oak. The oak would have been worked in its green state when it is more malleable. As he leaves the house, he describes the numerous outbuildings on the farm. I particularly enjoyed the shepherd’s hut that he uses as a study but also as a bedroom:
“These days, my cosy cabin is a shepherd’s hut in the lee of a south-facing Suffolk hedge and a big ash tree a field away from the house. Perched on iron wheels, it is lined with close-grained pine boards stained a deep honey-amber by years of woodsmoke seeping from the stove. There’s a simply chair and table where I often work, oil lamps and candles, sun-faded curtains, and a wooden bed with a space underneath where sheepdogs and orphan lambs would once have curled up, gently warming the slumbering shepherd above.” (Deakin 2008 p9-10).
Deakin begins by explaining where the hut is located and its positioning, then describes what it looks like and what it is made of, referencing in particular the wood used in its construction. Then he goes on to share its furnishing and finally an anecdote of the likely use of the hut in times gone by – all explained in his lyrical prose. However, he does not leave it there but then talks of particular experiences when sleeping outdoors and why he does it:
“Why do I sleep outdoors? Because of the sound of the random dripping of rain off the maples or ash trees over the roof of the railway wagon, [another of his outbuildings] or the hopping of a bird on the wet felt of the roof, or the percussion of a twig against the steel stove-chimney. Out there, I hear the yawn of the wind in the trees along Cowpasture Lane. I feel in touch with the elements in a way I never do indoors.” (Deakin 2008 p12)
Through the book, Deakin recounts visits to friends, such as The Bluebell Picnic and The Moth Wood, recounting events and experiences threaded through his frequent descriptions of the trees. He recounts his visits to the New Forest during his Biology sixth form studies and the times he spends with his school friends engaged in the detailed study and mapping of forest woodland, bog and heathland.
Wildwood combines Deakin’s life story with his passion for wood – it is a travel journal, a diary and demonstrates a detailed and enduring knowledge of the natural world. When reading his work, I can visualise what he is describing, learn from his knowledge and experience and smell, feel and taste what he is writing about.
In terms of my practice, there is much I can learn, not only in terms of how Deakin writes but also in the way he sees and attends to everything around him. I am a visual person and consider myself good at taking in the scene and picking out those aspects that interest me, but in so doing inevitably miss others. I need to slow down my practice. I need to be more attentive, not only in a visual sense but also in the other senses – particularly listening.
In order to do this, I intend to listen more intensively to what I can hear, and to help in my endeavour, I will record the sounds related to the scene I am writing about. In these lockdown times, I am not able to visit the loch where much of my image-making takes place, but will discover other more accessible locations to write, look, listen, smell, taste and touch.
Deakin, R. (2008). Wildwood – A Journey Through Trees. London, Penguin.
Macfarlane, R. (2007). The Wild Places. London, Granta Books.