Caught by the River

Notes From Walnut Tree Farm

29th October 2008

review by Tom Hodgkinson.

The nature writer Roger Deakin sadly died in 2006, but luckily for us he has left behind three wonderful books. The latest of these, Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, has been compiled from his diaries by his friends Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker. They took the diaries from the last six years of his life—neatly written, they say, in exercise books—and have edited them into a single composite year. The effect is fantastic: I dipped in and out of it rather than reading it in order, and it was hugely disappointed when I realise that I’d read the whole thing. But I’ll keep it on my desk or by my bed, to reread when I need to be refreshed or inspired.

The diary form works beautifully and if anything this book is superior to Deakins’ previous book Wildwood, which is saying something, since that was marvellous. In a diary, all self-consciousness is lost. It’s a very natural form. And it admits to huge variety. Like a book of reflections or a commonplace book, in the diary, a long reflective entry can be followed by a single line, creating an effect somewhere between prose and poetry. As a literary form the diary is all welcoming, anything can go in there: a half-remembered dream, a reflection, a quote, a childhood memory, a poem, a conversation, an anecdote… paradoxically for an outwardly outwardly egotistical way of writing, the diary is actually free from the presence of a fearful controlling ego. With the diary, we get the id in free flow.

In Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, we are treated to all sorts of enthralling details from the writer’s daily life as he swims in his moat, collects firewood, watches the birds and sleeps in his shepherds hut, listening to the owls. In just a few words, Deakin can delight and inspire in equal measure:

I cut a hazel-coppice pole out of my wood and used it as a curtain pole in my bedroom. It works well.


My house was once an acorn.

Calmly and without the shrill, self-righteous and hectoring that characterises much environmental writing, Deakin will raise issues that are acutely pertinent to modern life. He is a serious radical. The strimmer versus the scythe, for example, is an issue that I’ve been pondering at home. He rightly defends the scythe over the noisy, oil-powered strimmer. Machinery disconnects you from the land whereas hand tools unite you with it, and indeed with your own self:

Working with a sycthe is silent, rhythmical and conducive to thinking. A power tool simply jams the brain solid with its dim violence and sense of hurry. A scythe is unhurried, but it can feel a fair-sized area of grass and herbs in an hour of steady work, and by six I have very nearly cleared the whole front lawn.

Another central preoccupation here is wood. He has a wood burning stove in his study, and is thrifty withy his wood, avoiding, for examle, bonfires:

Making bonfires of perfectly useful kindling wood for the sake of convenience is as stupid as driving an SUV because it wastes valuable fuel resources. Frittering is something we can no longer afford.

Like another great nature writer, Oliver Rackham, Deakin hates excessive tidiness, and doesn’t even like mowing his lawn:

Long grass is more mysterious than mown grass. You could be looking straight at a skylark’s nest or a field mouse, a frog or a dormouse nest, and not know it. It is a jungle in miniature.

Also he has a fondness for medieval social systems, as other radicals like William Morris have done before him:

I walk about the common with my imaginary medieval friend. “The ponds are so shallow. Why are they nearly dried out?” he says, amazed at the state of the grass. “What’s happened to all the cowslips and buttercups — and the hay rattle flowers? Where are the clouds of butterflies that used to rise up before the scythe?
‘It’s so quiet. Where are the voices of the children stone-picking in the fields, where is the birdsong, where are the grasshoppers?

Deakin is the kind of man who gets called “an eccentric”. But in actual fact, he is simply sane. He is well-centred: it is other people who have lost their grip. And as we seem currentlyto be abandoning our dream of a man-created brave new world, writers like Deakin, who seek to live alongside nature without exploiting it, will become increasingly relevant. It makes practical sense to use a sycthe, to burn wood to keep warm, to make things from stuff that is growing under your nose, and to indulge your daydreams. The crazy ones are the rushing Oxford Street crowds, fruitlessly seeking affirmation and satisfaction through their choice of mobile phone.

In Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, we have an example of what we might call good thinking and a good life. Deakin has the right approach to the world. It’s an approach that more of us need to adopt if we want to avoid slavery to the megamachine of oil, technology, hard work and harder spending. Clearly that system is beginning to totter under the weight of its own fantasies, and people are emerging from their self-created caves and are blinking in the sunlight, waking up. Deakin’s world, Deakin’s way of seeing the world, Deakin’s attitude to things is of great importance. It is a world full of freedom, pleasure and reflection. It is crucially not full of commodities. Posh and Becks are dead. Long live Roger Deakin.

buy the book here

get more Tom at The Idler