It’s hard to imagine Caught by the River existing without Roger Deakin.
Although the name of the site was borrowed from the Doves song, it could very well have been a subtitle for Deakin’s peerless 1999 aqua-memoir Waterlog. Deakin was caught by the river. And by the canal, the lake, the moat. Any body of water large enough to consume the human form was his to be conquered.
Back when Jeff, Andrew and myself sat in the pub talking about what the site might one day become, a dog eared paperback of Waterlog was usually sat on the table between amassing empties. Trying to place a finger on the pulse of the book, Jeff declared it to be a work of ‘pastoral anarchy’. Respect nature – stand in awe of it even – but flick a very British V sign to man’s enforced boundaries and regulations.
After nearly a decade online, that pastoral anarchy is still absolutely central to what we do. It’s there in the Letters from Arcadia, in Luke Turner’s journeys into Epping Forest and it’s there in the Be:One record. It’s a spirit that says, “This spot looks nice, I’m diving in.” It’s Roger’s DNA weaved through right through the site.
Hope you’ll join us today raising a glass to Roger on the tenth anniversary
First published in The Guardian on Saturday 16th September, 2006.
Words: Robert Macfarlane
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, the house he eventually completed, and in which he died a month ago, 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 Roger 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. It was a house which breathed. Spiders slung swags and trusses of silk in every corner. As I sat with Roger, 10 days before his death, a brown cricket with long spindly antennae clicked along the edge of an old biscuit tin.
The fields, well tended but unfarmed, were also busy with life. Sparrow-hawks busked for custom overhead, deer picked their way through the hornbeam wood and tawny owls hooted from big ash trees. The land was separated into fields by a mile of massive old hedgerow, in places five metres high and five wide. Roger had a habit of driving his cars until they were about to give out, then backing them into a particularly deep area of hedge and abandoning them, to be grown through by the briars and nested in by birds. Walking the fields with him, you would come across old Citroëns with their frog-eye headlights, peeping from the brambles. “All that needs is a new engine, and we could drive it to France,” he said, hopefully, as we passed one of these.
Roger wrote as idiosyncratically as he did everything. Thinking my way through his house now, I can count at least five different desks, between which he would migrate according to his different moods. His sleeping-places changed, too. Over the years he had established in his meadows a variety of outlying structures, including two shepherd’s huts, an old wooden caravan with a cracked window and a railway wagon that he had painted Pullman-purple. He once emailed me happily about having been out in the wagon with the rain whacking on the roof. “An amazing thunderstorm last night as I lay listening. Like being inside a kettledrum with a whole symphony going on out there and with thunder in wraparound quadraphonic!” When he wasn’t writing, he was usually swimming, most often in his moat, or wallowing in the massive cast-iron bath that lived at the back of the house.
In his relaxed contrarianism, his environmentalism (he was an early member of Friends of the Earth, and co-founded Common Ground, the organisation which has campaigned so significantly for “local distinctiveness”) and his enthusiasm, Roger was a latter-day Thoreau. Except that where Thoreau lived by his pond for a total of several months over several years, Roger lived by his moat for nearly four decades, watching and noting the habits of the trees, creatures, wind, sun and water around him. Walnut Tree Farm was a settlement in three senses: a habitation, an agreement with the land, and a slow subsidence into intimacy with a chosen place.
It was while doing lengths in his moat that Roger 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, Roger 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. The result was a masterpiece: a funny, lyrical, wise travelogue which was at once a defence of the wild water that was left and an elegy for that which had gone. Here is a section from his exploration of the streams and lakes of the Rhinogs, a remote mountain group in North Wales:
Searching the map, I had seen some promising upland streams, a waterfall, and a tarn, so I hiked off uphill through the bracken. There is so much of it in the Rhinogs that the sheep all carry it around on their coats like camouflaged soldiers. I watched a ewe standing between two rocks the shape of goats' cheeses. They were just far enough apart to allow the animal in, and I began to understand the relationship Henry Moore perceived between sheep and stones. He saw sheep as animate stones, the makers of their own landscape. By grazing the moors and mountains they keep the contours - the light and shade - clear, sharp and well-defined, like balding picture-restorers constantly at work on every detail. The black oblongs of their pupils set deep in eyes the colour and texture of frog skin are like the enormous slate coffin-baths you see in the farmyards here; seven-foot slabs of slate hollowed into baths.
Sheep like soldiers, stones like cheeses, stones like sheep, sheep like picture-restorers, sheep’s eyes like frog skin, sheep’s pupils like slate baths … this joyful promiscuity of comparison is characteristic of Roger’s prose. It was a function of his immense enthusiasm and curiosity, but it was also, in its way, a literary playing out of the first principle of ecology: that everything is connected to everything else, or as John Muir put it, that “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.
But Roger was capable of lyrical precision as well as paper-clip-chain metaphors. When he wrote that “Redstarts flew from tree to tree, taking the line a slack rope would take slung between them; economy in flight is what makes it graceful”, it is the economy of the prose which makes the observation graceful. His description of a kingfisher “streaking by in an afterburn of blue” catches exactly the experience of one’s eyes not being quick enough to follow the flying bird.
In its poetry, its ecological conscience, and its visionary quality, Waterlog should be understood as belonging to a tradition of English land-art which includes the sculptors David Nash and Peter Randall-Page, as well as writers such as Ronald Blythe, Richard Jefferies and John Clare. But another type of Englishness runs strong in Roger’s work, and that is his gently silly comedy – the humour of Kenneth Grahame, Jerome K Jerome, AA Milne, PG Wodehouse and even Enid Blyton. The result of this mixture is that you finish reading Waterlog invigorated, and with a changed relationship to water and to nature. It is a book, as Heathcote Williams nicely punned, which leaves you with a spring in your step.
The influence of Waterlog was immense. Despite its thoroughgoing Englishness, it won admirers in Australia, Canada and Europe. It prompted a revival of the lido culture in Britain, and even the founding of a wild-swimming company (a commercialisation of which Roger quietly disapproved). It also inspired untold numbers of readers to take to the open water.
So it was that, for instance, on a cold grey April day in Sutherland in 2004, I was to be found in the sprawling and remote Loch Sionascaig, in the shadow of Suilven, back-stroking out to an island while the rain fell hard on my face, already looking forward to telling Roger about the swim. The loch was a mile or so from the road, and the pleasure came at a price: I returned to my car peppered in midge and tick bites. As I reached the road, another car came into view. Its driver stopped and wound down her window. “You’ve been swimming,” she said. Dripping wet, and standing in my trunks, I could not deny it. “A bit early in the year, isn’t it?” she said. The midges were discouraging longhand explanations, so I said that a friend of mine had written a book called Waterlog about wild swimming, and now I couldn’t keep out of the water. She gave a surprised smile, reached down, and picked up the audio-tape of the book, to which she had been listening as she drove that lonely road.
Travel with Roger was even more unpredictable than travel under his influence. The dark-green Audi in which he journeyed to his last escapades had moss growing in its foot-wells (“three different sorts”, he pointed out, proudly), and a variety of useful knives in the glove-box. Its boot always held a bivouac bag, a trenching tool of some sort and a towel and trunks, in case he passed somewhere interesting to sleep, dig, or swim. When lost while driving, which was most of the time, he had a habit of slowing almost to a halt on roundabouts and squinting up at the road-signs while I assumed the crash position. He was always proposing adventures: a night stake-out of a new badger warren “in a mysterious wooded tumulus in Thornham Woods”, or a joint attempt to traverse an acre of ancient woodland from one side to another without touching the ground, like the hero of Italo Calvino’s beautiful book, The Baron Of The Trees. “He’s over 60,” a mutual friend said to me, “and he’s still got the energy of a fox-cub.”
One July we went to Dorset to explore the system of holloways or ancient drove-roads which seams that soft-stone county. We ended up sleeping in a hillside meadow, and cooking in the bed of the holloway. “A Vlach shepherd in the Pindos once taught me how to make a smokeless fire”, Roger remarked idly, before creating a tiny and, yes, smokeless fire that was hot enough for us to boil water on. His extraordinary life meant that he often began stories with sentences of this kind. “When I was living in a cave in Southern Greece …” “Did I tell you how a hunter once shot at me because he thought I was a bear?” (the point of the story was how pleased he was to have been mistaken for an animal). We had plans to travel together to Cumbria, and at some point, Australia. He wondered if we could earn our passage out to the Antipodes as oarsmen on a quinquereme. I wasn’t sure that we could.
For the seven years after finishing Waterlog, Roger was at work on a book about woods. He disapproved of the habit of fetishising single trees – chieftain pines or king oaks. Trees to him were herd creatures, best understood when considered in their relationships with one another (he loved the way that oak trees, for instance, would share nutrients via their root systems when one of their number was under stress). Trees were human to Roger, and humans tree-like, in hundreds of complicated and deeply felt ways. Researching his book, he travelled to Kyrgyzstan, Australia, Tasmania, America, and throughout Europe and the British Isles. It was a measure of his natural generosity and his devotion to nature that, even when he was near death from cancer, he could still speak without jealousy of the ability of trees to heal themselves.
Over the years the project sprawled, digressing into studies of the hula-hoop craze, his anarchist great-uncle, the architecture of pine-cones. The numbered notebooks containing his research fill a wall of the main study at Mellis. It’s now clear that a brain tumour was trying to scatter his thoughts, stop him finishing the book. But it was done by the time he died, and Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees will be published early next summer. It is another major work.
A month ago, I drove to Mellis to see Roger for the last time: held his hand, talked a little, until he fell asleep. The next day, I went with two friends, who had also known him, out to the north Norfolk coast. We swam in wild waves at dawn and dusk, and in the evening we read aloud the pages from Waterlog describing that magnificent coastline. We slept in the pine forests which run down almost to the sand at Holkham. I spent half the night in a hammock he had lent me, and half of it down on the needle carpet, where it smelt of sap and resin. Roger died a week later, still in the house that he had built around himself 38 years earlier.
A life lived so joyfully and so uniquely should not only be grieved over. But his death at 63 brought two unignorable losses. The first was to his family and many friends, for he would have grown old, properly old, so superbly. He was an expert in age: in its charisma and its worth; everything he owned was worn, used, reused. If anyone would have known how to age well, it was him.
The second loss was to literature. For his life to the point he wrote Waterlog – years in teaching, in film-making, even briefly in advertising – all fed into that exceptional book, and into Wildwood. But there were many more books to come. One about Essex, he told me, which I knew would also have been about the whole world. Another about aboriginality in the British Isles.
He was a prolific and brilliant correspondent, and his letters were always inset with beautiful field-notes, told for the joy of telling. The spring before his diagnosis, he wrote to me in excitement about new arrivals at Walnut Tree Farm:
Fox-cubs here, under the shed just beyond the shepherd's hut: the one that's invisible because under an enormous hedgehog of brambles. They are well-grown now and at dusk or dawn, frisking on the flattened grass, somersaulting, vaulting, tumbling as I watch them from my chair in the hedge. What spring means to a fully wound fox-cub!
Our tribute to Roger Deakin continues tomorrow with words and pictures from Walnut Tree Farm, courtesy of Justin Partyka.