Caught by the River

There is much in my life I can thank Roger Deakin for

17th September 2016

Part of our continuing tribute to Roger Deakin

There is much in my life I can thank Roger Deakin for.

By Keshia Glover,

Summer 2012

A year after I left art college I was working the only job I could find, doing long shifts in a franchise cafe an hour-and-a-half commute from home. It was torturously exhausting and unfulfilling; I was only treading water. I needed an escape. I needed a direction, some kind of vision to aim for.

Upon her return from a festival, my mother held out a brown paper bag to me, with a strange reluctance.
“I’ve got you a present.” She said.
I slid a paperback book from the bag, its cover a riot of turquoise ripples. Suddenly I realised what I was holding.

I had heard of Waterlog. I had heard of Roger Deakin (referred to – not wholly benevolently – as ‘Freaky Deaky’ by my mother, who was once a pupil of his.) I had heard he was an unfathomably eccentric man, far too fond of swimming in rivers, toted to me as some kind of warning every time I decided to take a plunge into a local river…which I had a habit of doing.

I read Waterlog slowly. I savoured snippets on the bus to work, terrified to finish it and have to live without it, envious of its freedom, joy and languid meandering.

Sometimes I felt like throwing it down in rage; I wanted nothing more than to travel spontaneously and freely, to explore and adventure – but I was trapped.

When I could, I swam. It was a kind of rebirth. A reconnecting: I was astonished that I had completely lost touch with nature.

One evening, after the sun had sunk below the trees I was swimming upstream along a shallow sandy river overhung with alders. I rounded a bend, and there, on a promontory between the river channel and an adjoining ditch a white egret was poised, luminous in the dusk. For a moment I gazed at it, and it gazed at me, before it opened its wings – as wide as the river – and flapped away, turning upstream, weaving through the willows and alders into the hazy evening river mist until it was gone.

I applied to study ecology and handed in my notice at the café.

By some stroke of luck, during my studies, I found myself living in an isolated farmhouse at the end of a rough track, nestled in a mosaic of woods and fields. I had a ‘patch’ that was my very own, which I could grow to know intimately; each notable tree, the haunts of animals, the landscape archaeology map of moats and ditches. For a short while, this place was mine to observe through seasonal change, to get involved with, to live symbiotically.

I wove living sculptures from the white poplars in the wild garden and sat in the bowl of the pollard ash at sunset as the rooks flew over to roost. I grew vegetables, then lost the battle to keep the pheasants out of my vegetables. I watched hares boxing in the stubble from the kitchen window.

Waking with the sun, I read Wildwood and Notes From Walnut Tree Farm over my morning coffee. It was those books, not the coffee, that gave me the energy to leap up and embrace each day.

I worked coppicing and laying hedges, hands roughed up from tool handles and blackthorn. I wrote, climbed trees, wandered winter beaches.

On stormy evenings I sat and listened to Roger’s radio recordings The House and The Garden (now sadly gone from the public domain – but wholly deserving of a campaign to return them…) they brought the deepest kind of comforting, satisfied peace. A rightness with the world.

It is an indescribable thing, how perhaps, through Roger Deakin’s work, I pieced together a hazy vision of a life I wanted to live, then set out to live it.

I admired his effortless harmony with the natural world, his role as sharp-eyed observer of the landscape, the wisdom with which he processed those observations, and the poetry of his writing.

Those three books urged me to treat myself a little kinder, to go a little easier on myself, to find joy in simple things and enjoy them shamelessly. To appreciate the small details, the microcosms of places and lives; to see not only the bigger picture but the importance of its constituent parts. To work with one’s hands; be it roughly or intricately. To be unafraid of bruises, scrapes, grazes and calluses; for what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and these are the stories of our skin. To not fear the weather, for a bit of rain won’t hurt you. We’re stronger than we think we are, we’re tougher and more resilient than we believe. That there is a leniency on private property, that stolen fruits (or swimming holes….) are sweeter, and harmless disobedience is forgivable.

Sometimes, at the points of dilemmas, I find I am asking myself ‘what would Roger Deakin do?’ – to take the plunge even though the water’s murky, to jump the gate with the ‘keep out’ sign, to free the butterfly from the cobweb – to reign some benevolent but anarchistic justice on the world. Be generous, be kind, be fearless, and ever curious.

Not wrongfully (but somewhat accusingly) called a dreamer, Roger Deakin maintained the adventurous sense of play that is stamped out of a lot of us by gruelling lives and a desire to be respectable, sensible adults. So often criticised for it, it is his devil-may-care attitude and life lived in curiosity, satisfying the ‘what-ifs’ in his mind, that is admired and emulated by those who love his work. He pottered and tinkered and meandered with an enviable freedom. He enjoyed his ‘work’ (if it can be called work) something our society is envious of, almost to the point of fear and suspicion, when all we all really want out of life is the levels of enjoyment and satisfaction that come across in Roger’s books.

There have been many vibrant moments in the last handful of years when I have felt I am living in the tradition of Roger Deakin. When staying in Somerset, my host took me through the hedge into the back garden of a staggeringly expensive but apparently unoccupied mansion to swim in the river bordering its grounds. While swimming, a heron came circling in over the river, either unaware we were there, or thinking my head might be dinner, or somewhere to land, only veering away in horror last moment upon discovering I was a submerged human. I nearly drowned from laughing.

Most of all I am grateful for how his work has convinced me to unashamedly enjoy life. It is unthinkable to wonder where I might be now if I had not, by chance, been given Waterlog.