Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm

A year or two ago I came across this review in Publishers Weekly of a book by Roger Deakin, Wildwood:

In this last book before his death in 2006, Deakin (Waterlog) delights with his curiosity and affection for rambling forests in Europe and Australia. The book is as much about the woodland animals and humans engaged with forest life as it is about the trees, the rooks flinging themselves into a strong wind and somersaulting wildly upward, then diving straight down again into the woods like bungee jumpers; the Essex Moth Group clustering around a mercury lamp to view moths with poetic names like the willow beauty, the dingy footman, the clouded silver; and artists engaging with nature, like John Wolseley, inspired by the fire-struck Australian Whipstick Forest to create works expressing all the urgency and energy of the racing bushfire itself. Deakin's lyrical, sometimes anthropomorphic portraits of trees and wood are saturated with his scientific knowledge and passion: a hazel branch, more of a magician's staff than a walking stick... naturally fluted and spiraled by the strangling effect of the honeysuckle stem that still encircled it like an asp... was a masterpiece of nature, the voluptuous embrace of the honeysuckle exciting the hazel into a frenzy of cell division.

I bought it immediately, for an ungodly sum, from England. I fell in love with it. Although it's a little treacly in places, it is essentially the poetry of trees, full of that wild magic that breathes from an English wood.

I'm writing a novel, about a woman called Hild, steeped in my love of the landscape of my home country. Trees and meadow, hill and dale, coastline and fen are what I grew up with, what is ingrained in me at the cellular level. Yet I've lived in the US, among conifers and eagles, raccoons and coyotes, for nearly twenty years. The English landscape is no longer second nature to me. It's wrapped in a curiously scent-free memory cistern.

So here I am writing about young Hild who, as Anglo-Saxons did, lived absolutely in tune with the outdoors in order to survive and I find myself groping for memories that are sealed away. I realise I no longer know what the River Derwent looks, feels, smells, sounds like in April. I can no longer picture Sancton in June. What birds are singing? Are the hedgehogs asleep or awake? When do the trees blossom and come into leaf? When are tadpoles wriggling like plump commas in the pond?

I went to Wikipedia, I scoured the personal blogs of nature lovers who live in England. And still my deep, physical knowledge of the English countryside stayed behind a sheet of glass--inaccessible to all senses but sight. I began to wonder if I could do this.

And then I heard that Roger Deakin's literary executor had put together one last book based on Deakin's notes and diaries. I bought it immediately. It's Notes from Walnut Tree Farm.

I'm only halfway through it and already I feel refreshed. Hild is walking through a beech spinney in April and I've only to flip to page 69, to 'April', to find this paragraph:

Strong, cold, north wind blowing. I go up the side of the field, uphill, and cross over a young wheat field to the wood. It has a wood bank and a deep ditch, and as soon as I enter the wood I am struck by the enormous carpet of lily-of-the-valley leaves, and wood anemone in flower, studded with the deep blue of violets.

And I'm there. I remember the cold loamy smell, the first brave bumblebees, the scudding cloud, the way new leaves shiver and hiss. It fills me with joy and a sudden certainty that I'm writing the right book.

I wish Deakin was alive. I would like to take him out for dinner, drink some good Spanish wine and talk about the birds and the bees and the cathedrals of trees...

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