Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, by Roger Deakin, edited by Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker
The writer, Robert Macfarlane, said of his friend, Roger Deakin, that everything Deakin had ever said tended ‘towards diffidence, an abrogation of the self’. It was a fierce verdict. Not a denial of the self or even a suppression of it but an abrogation, an annulment or cancellation of who he was. Macfarlane meant it as no criticism. He loved and even revered Deakin and Deakin, by his own account, replied, quoting Keats that ‘We should rather be the flower than the bee’, that the recipient, the quietist, whose governing quality was an alert passivity, was the man of virtue.
This collection from Deakin’s notebooks over the last six years of his life — he died in 2006 — is a tribute to that frame of mind. It is a book palpably written in the quiet, irritated only by the disruptions to quiet, by the modern destruction of beautiful things that had been there a long time. It is a life almost without drama, but filled with a miniaturist examination of the beetles and moths that wander across his page, of the birds singing in the garden of his Suffolk house, of the animals rubbing against the sheds he had scattered across his small group of fields, where he slept and wrote, making journeys around the corners of his private world.
Deakin had more of a life than this — he was often in London and abroad, he did his emails — but that outer shell is shucked off here, whether by him or his editors you can’t tell, so that you are left with the inner, neither entirely happy nor unhappy and sometimes slightly lonely life of a man in his Suffolk farmhouse. It feels like a kind of nakedness. ‘The thing that falls out of a walnut shell,’ he wrote one autumn, ‘is like a brain’, and that is the impression this book gives too.
It is a watching mind, unpretentious and not interested in display or any bravura intellectual or poetic effects. That has its drawbacks. These are not the journals of a Sebald, let alone a Woolf or a Coleridge. There is nothing heightened or tensed about them, and no freewheeling, inventive strangeness, no mania or despair. It is the voice of a tall man reaching down gently to the tiny and the vulnerable, now and then becoming angry at the idiocies of the modern world, but just as much filled with admiration for and love of his friends, for Macfarlane, Ronald Blythe, Richard Mabey, Alice Oswald and others.
Inevitably, the book flirts with banality, but this modesty means that the notebooks often record something which would have been absent from a more ego-dominated journal: a quivering, hair-on-end feeling of antennae properly alert. Deakin loved Microcosmos, the extraordinary French documentary film of the insects in a meadow in the Auvergne, for its intense macro-scale examination of the miniature, and he brought the same kind of lens to bear on himself and his life. It can take the form of acute remembering:
When I gashed my thumb and the blood spurted, I couldn’t help feeling a hint of the pleasure I used to feel, or pride, at bleeding when I was a boy. ‘Who’s a wounded soldier then?’ my mother would say.
Or the sudden conjunction of disparate ideas: ‘A tree lives on air, like Hamlet: “I eat the air, promise-crammed.” ’ Or the innocent question: ‘Why don’t all the leaves come down at once?’ Or precise observation. The cowslips in one meadow seem to be arranged in radiating ‘ley-lines’. Why? Because there’s an anthill at the hub of the cowslip spokes and the ants have somehow been carrying, and dropping, the cowslip seeds on their backs.
I met Roger Deakin only once for a few hours. We had supper, then stayed with a friend and went for a walk early the next morning over a Norfolk marsh where the geese were coming in and everything he seemed to be then had the same qualities as these journal entries: gentle, straight, honest, inquisitive, unimposing, slightly removed, funny, melancholic, with an air of having been slightly hurt by life. It was perfectly clear why those who knew him loved him.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 15, 2008