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Following the May - Roger Deakin


Image: Lewisham

A friend in Britain writes, "The countryside is now at its best, with everything looking so fresh and new. It’s a ‘sea’ of green and white everywhere, as the hawthorn is in full bloom. It’s almost as if someone has scattered icing sugar over all the hedgerows, just for our delight".

It's a useful genus, too. The hawthorn or 'May' makes an almost impenetrable hedge and a shelter for birds, animals, wildflowers and bees. Animals follow paths through the hedge's interior, travelling for miles. I was following the history of hedges in Britain online, a bit like one of those animals scurrying through one, when I stumbled upon Roger Deakin, a lover of trees, whose curious house and life may be familiar to you.


Deakin completed Wildwood, A Journey through Trees just before he died in 2006. In his tribute to the greenwood he is the latest in a long British line that seems to begin with the Druids and leafs out in the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, the flourishing carvings of Southwell, the singer of the Robin Hood ballads, Shakespeare, John Ray, who discovered that the wood of living trees conducts water, John Evelyn who wrote about trees and planted them, AA Milne, Auden, Robert Byron, and Tolkien, whose Ents resemble green Druids. . .

I haven't read Wildwood, but I'd like to after learning -

In 1968, Roger Deakin bought the ruined remains of an Elizabethan house, and 12 acres of surrounding meadow, on the edge of Mellis Common in Suffolk. Little survived of the original 16th-century dwelling except its spring-fed moat, overhung by hazels, and its vast inglenook fireplace. So Roger put a sleeping-bag down in the fireplace, and lived there while he rebuilt the house around himself.

Walnut Tree Farm. . .is made largely of wood. It is as close to a living thing as a building can be. When big easterlies blow, its timbers creak and groan "like a ship in a storm", as Deakin put it, "or a whale on the move". He kept the doors and the windows open, in order to let air and animals circulate. Leaves gusted in through one door and out of another. Swallows flew to and from their nest in the main chimney.

He had laid hedges in medieval patterns near his moat -

But mostly he had let the hedges run wild. In parts, they had reached 20 feet high and 15 feet wide. Elder, maple, hazel and ash trees for the most part formed their central structures; dog rose, blackthorn and bramble billowed spikily outwards; and bryony, honeysuckle and hop draped and wove themselves around everything, giving the hedges differing densities and colours through the year. So thick were some areas of hedge that elms grew there to an uncommon height, protected from the death-carrying beetles by the thicket of briars and roses.

. . It was while doing lengths in his moat that Deakin had the idea for what would become Waterlog. Published in 1999 in a small print run, the book quickly became a word-of-mouth bestseller. Starting from the moat, Deakin set out to swim through the rivers, lakes, streams and seas of Britain, and thus to acquire what he called "a frog's-eye view" of the country.

I have the feeling that trees are mysterious beings. I mean this in several ways. Physically, they're mysterious. The fountain of life goes up, an unbroken column of water carrying minerals and water through the sapwood and up to the leaves, a quarter of a million leaves on one big oak, but though the force that pulls the fountain up has been measured, it has never been explained.

Other mysteries are revealed when a person such as Deakin becomes attentive to trees.