Magazine article The Spectator

Child of the New Forest

Magazine article The Spectator

Child of the New Forest

Article excerpt

WILDWOOD : A JOURNET THROUGH TREES by Roger Deakin Hamish Hamilton, £20, pp. 391, ISBN 9780241141847 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Roger Deakin was a swimmer, old-fashioned socialist, carpenter, broadcaster, tree-planter, chair-bodger, 'quasi-hippie', art critic, naturalist, Cambridge graduate, traveller, north-east Suffolk man, champion of local individuality, anti-globaliser and explorer of the links between nature and culture. (Guess how many of these attributes he shared with this reviewer. ) He founded Common Ground, the organisation that gave the only sensible advice -- do nothing -- about what to do after the Great Storm 20 years ago. He died last year leaving this, his last work.

It is not a book about wildwood, in the proper sense of woodland in the dim and distant past before the coming of settled humanity.

Much of it is not even a book about trees. It is a miscellany of rural essays, in the literary tradition of W. H. Hudson, Richard Jefferies and the author's beloved William Cobbett.

While a schoolboy Deakin had the good fortune to fall in with an enthusiastic teacher of fieldwork, Barry Goater, who introduced him to serious learning of plants and animals on camping expeditions in the New Forest.

Among his fellow pupils was George Peterken, who has become the greatest living woodland ecologist. I was similarly fortunate to have been introduced to serious natural history by Ted Ellis. But who does this now? Trees and plants and animals have been relegated to the environment, to a branch of the televised entertainment that Deakin hated. They are no longer fun. Who now introduces children to see and listen to and handle real living creatures as themselves, as three-dimensional personalities, eccentric, seasonal, each pursuing its own agenda?

Interleaved with art criticism, the reader will find many curiosities of nature, like the songs of newts, and even more curiosities of human nature, like cricket-bat manufacture, the dance of the Grovely women beside Salisbury Cathedral, and those mysterious walnut panels inside Jaguar cars -- all told with verve and energy. Deakin treads a perilous path between topography, literary writing, ethnography, natural history and ecology as a science, darting from one to the other at a moment's notice.

I could wish that he had allowed himself a little more space, gained perhaps by pruning the everyday details of people's ordinary clothes and vehicles. …

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