Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Nature Boy

I seem to have spent all of my summer so far reading. Nothing new there, of course: I seem to have spent every summer since the age of 15 doing nothing but reading. This is partially because Bournemouth has to be one of the dullest towns on the south coast - or at least so it appeared to an overactively imaginative teenage boy - and one had to make one's own entertainment. It was also, in a sense, the only possible oppositional activity in a town whose main occupation seemed to be the display of flesh on sand for the purposes of being cooked by the sun. Sheltering in the cool woods or walking through the park, and reading; the least strenuous of all possible activities - during the summer of 2005 I was getting through approximately a book a week. Even that seems shamefully slow now - during the past week and a half I've finished about 4.

It's probably appropriate that the two I finished first were Roger Deakin's Wildwood and Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist. In spite of the praise heaped on it, I thought that Heaney's debut was underdeveloped, bitty, somewhat boring; the compressed lyric forms were straining after a profundity they couldn't grasp. The Heaney project - reading his first 4 books over the course of a couple of weeks - continues apace, and I shall no doubt post some observations here. Wildwood was a far more satisfying read, and one that lingers strangely in the mind in a way I haven't encountered since David Toop's Haunted Weather. And, indeed, although it isn't anywhere near as profound and wonderful, the two are somewhat comparable, both working through fragmentary meditations that seem to hang together in a totality that gathers significance in the juxtapositions of its pieces; the majority of the book consists of narratives about different breeds of tree, different arboreal landscapes, differnet uses and resonances of trees. I first came to Deakin's writing after reading Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places last year. One of the last journeys Macfarlane takes is with Deakin out to the peninsula of Orford Ness in East Suffolk, just south of the memento mori of the submerged village of Dunwich, and site of the British military's nuclear testing facilities - explosion chambers constructed as pagoda-like bunkers. The site is slowly being reclaimed by vegetation and animal life. East Suffolk was also the backdrop to Matthew Hopkins' witch-hunting campaigns around 1645; in Michael Reeves' 1968 film about Hopkins, Witchfinder General, the flat, windy landscape, coloured in dark greens and browns, smothered in shadow, seems to positively ooze evil; Reeves himself would die of an overdose not soon afterwards. Deakin had been diagnosed with cancer at the time of their journey. We see Macfarlane, at the end of the chapter, sat in his car, weeping, after hearing of Deakin's death.

Wildwood was finished not long before Deakin died; he was still writing it during his journeys with Macfarlane. It was, in effect, his parting gift, and an autobiography, written through the element that defined his life. He reiterates, again and again, what importance wood had in his life on his Suffolk farm: for making crockery, furniture, fruit, barns, for hedging. He spends his time visiting woods in Essex, catching moths, in north Wales, with the artist David Nash, who works almost exclusively in wood, in woods famous for their bluebells, in Kazakhstani forests covered in wild apple trees, in - inevitably - the New Forest. Indeed, the Forest, though not the central concern - there isn't anything quite so obvious in the book - is one of the most important elements. It was where, as he relates in an early chapter, his life as a naturalist began, chronicling the mosses, flora and insect fauna of the bogs and heaths around Beaulieu Road (not far from where my aunt and uncle's farm is). In 'The New Forest Revisited', in which he takes a trip back to that landscape with his old biology tutor, his descriptions of the minutiae of creatures and plants living in the old pools and woods are quite beautiful, luminous and almost poetic in their flat grasp of the world. It is the act of study, intent and enraptured, that brings out the affect in these things, just as, looking harder and harder at a fractal, one sees more and more shapes, multiplying out to infinity. The biologist Edward O. Wilson, writing in Biophilia, states that the central fact of a naturalist's life is that "it is possible to spend a whole lifetime in a magellanic voyage around a single tree... as the exploration is pressed, it will engage more of the things close to the human heart and spirit; the more one looks at the natural, the more familiar one is with it, the more there is to see and know.

Deakin makes it clear that the most intimate way to get to know wood, and landscape, is to work with it, or in it: he spends his time bending ash shoots into bowers (and feels the life within them as they resist his efforts), coppicing groves, hedging with old tools (whose lack of noise, in comparison to chainsaws, allow one to think while working). Though it is largely unstated, it comes back to the question of craft: what is acquired in experience over the course of years, a skill that is also an intimacy with the phenomenal world, a sense of connection with it. (I'm sure Heidegger comes in at some point here - the idea of tools as objects connected to our being-in-the-world? It's been years since I last read about this stuff.) One section deals with the depletion of old skills: the end of thatching, basket-making, the construction of wooden fish-traps. There is no sentimentality about the passing of this 'old world' (note the scare quotes), only the same sense of sadness found in the passing of anything, and a sense that our relationship with the world is harmed by it. The relationship with wood - and with landscape more generally - he slowly reveals in the book is surprisingly uninterested in higher thought or theory; that is at once the book's downfall and its strength - whilst it is refreshing to read a book about nature and agriculture that is far from moralising, judgemental or sentimental, it is annoying that he does not make more of the imaginary resonances of wood: the important part that forests play in the Western imagination; he mentions John and Paul Nash, Edward Thomas and David Jones, and - uh, that's about it. The book is too overburdened with experience, too messy; reading it quickly becomes a difficult experience, you feel squashed with so many descriptions of lovely mountain forests and lovely glades, one after another. Nonetheless, there is, above all else, a sense here of a continuing life - it's one of the most pro-vitalist books I've read in ages. At the end of the book, he bends ash shoots into a spiral around several posts; one day it will have grown into a sculpture of sorts. "When the bower eventually comes of age, long after I am gone, the wooden spinning top might still be going round too." It still lives.


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