This was a lovely piece of nature writing. It wasn’t as poetic as say, Annie Dillard, but the writing didn’t come across as overly technical either. It was a book that made me want to camp out under the boughs of a British forest – to rebuild the ruins of a 400 year old timber frame house – to watch a craftsman at his lathe, turning wood into art.
Much of this book relates the author’s own experiences in the woods. In 1969, he moved to Suffolk and bought the ruins of a Tudor-era oak-framed farmhouse which he renovated board by board – at times sharing his space with the many creatures who had found a safe haven among the timbers and moss. In his descriptions, I felt the history and intimacy of the wood itself. Certain details linger with special significance, such as the fact that the usual width of homes in 16th century England were based on the height that trees in the area had to reach before their boles were large enough to become weight-bearing beams.
As an American who grew up in the woods of Appalachia, I was unfamiliar with practices such as coppicing, pollarding, or the grooming of hedgerows. Deakin spends several chapters describing these practices: coppicing involves cutting young trees down to ground level and allow new shoots of growth to grow up like small groves until they too are ready to harvest, while pollarding involves pruning back the upper branches of a tree, both to maintain a certain tree height and to promote new growth for use as fuel. Creating a hedgerow involves much more than planting a row of bushes – it’s a long term project of pruning and interweaving limbs of different trees together until they grow into a continuous whole. I was intrigued to learn of forestry practices other than the clear-cutting and re-planting that have been part of my experience.
The thing that struck me most about this book, however, was not it’s description of trees. It was the descriptions of the people who love trees and have let their lives be shaped by the woods around them. Some of these are artists, such as Margaret Mellis who fashions collages out of driftwood or David Nash who creates large scale sculpture in wood. Others have built their communities around the woods in various ways: from low-impact communes where people literally live among the trees to the inhabitants of the village of Great Wishford who make a festival of their yearly reassertion of their right to collect wood in the nearby “Grovely Wood,” as granted to them by a charter in 1603. Deakin gives a glimpse as well into the relationship between mankind and the woods on a global scale. In his travels, from New South Wales to Kazakhstan, and numerous places in between, he paints detailed images of the people he sees and the woods they live in.