Caught by the River

Roger Deakin

6th August 2007

In praise of… Roger Deakin

Monday August 6, 2007
The Guardian

A cool, damp British summer, of grey skies, floods and high humidity, has been kind to gardens and wild plants, if not to farmers or householders in the north and west of England. Hedges and trees have sprouted in profusion, a sight that would have pleased Roger Deakin, an individualist, environmentalist and writer, whose book Wildwood has recently been published.

Deakin, who died last year of a brain tumour, is much missed. But his spirit will live on in his two distinctive books: Wildwood and its predecessor, Waterlog, a narrative of wild swimming across Britain. To read his descriptions of swimming in rivers and ditches – from the Helford river in Cornwall to the backwaters of East Anglia – is to feel the sharp cut of fresh water and the smell of wet vegetation, what Deakin called his “frog’s eye view” of the world. He wrote, as few naturalists do, of mankind not as an enemy of nature but as part of it, a creative (and in recent times sadly destructive) force.

In Wildwood (which is not the easiest of books to read) he describes woodworkers and foresters, as well as forests. He also had a special tie to the land on which he lived, in Suffolk, an intense localism that led him to help found the charity Common Ground. His writing can thrill, as it did in one memorable description of nocturnal waters: “In the night sea at Walberswick I have seen bodies fiery with phosphorescent plankton striking through the waves like dragons.” After reading that, who would not want to swim out under the stars?

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