In 1969 Roger Deakin bought a ruined farmhouse in Mellis, a small village in north Suffolk. Walnut Tree Farm sat on the edge of Mellis Common, a medieval grazing pasture that centuries of farming had made rich with wild flowers, including rare green-winged orchids and sulphur clover. Over the course of several years, Roger rebuilt the farmhouse – first raised in the Elizabethan era – according to a traditional East Anglian method of timber-framing that allowed the house to sit upon the shifting clays of Suffolk and flex in response to the earth’s own flexes. At the back of the house was a spring-fed moat in which Roger would swim, twelve acres of meadow and more than half a mile of hedgerows. Along one side of his land ran the Ipswich–Norwich railway line, and perpendicular to the railway was an ancient right of way known as Cowpasture Lane.
Roger lived at Walnut Tree Farm for thirty-seven years, until his untimely death in the summer of 2006. Though he travelled widely and often, he always returned: it was, he wrote, his ‘den’, his ‘sett’. Living there as long as he did, he came to know the habits, the weather and the creatures of his landscape intimately. Roger was a self-taught naturalist and over the decades he recorded his observations of life at Walnut Tree Farm in dozens of notebooks and journals, mostly Moleskines, which he filled with his spidery black handwriting.
Thinking of Roger in Mellis, I am often put in mind of Henry David Thoreau in Walden. Both men were journal-keepers, both were naturalists and phenologists, both lived by water, both loved trees and woods, and the landscape of Walden – like that of Mellis – was bounded on one side by a railway line, such that both men could hear the rattle of freight trains passing in the night. But Thoreau only lived by Walden Pond for two years, whereas Roger was in Mellis for almost four decades. The result of his chronic acquaintance with that place was a fabulously deep knowing, made subtle by the long view as well as the close-up.
Two years after Roger’s death, Terence Blacker and Alison Hastie edited a selection of his notebooks, which were subsequently published as Notes from Walnut Tree Farm in 2008. That much-loved book soon became a classic of English localism, part of a tradition that stretches back to diarists and journal-keepers such as Francis Kilvert and Gilbert White. It also completed a loose trilogy of Roger’s books, along with Waterlog (1999) and Wildwood (2007).
A year later, Roger’s archive was acquired by the University of East Anglia, which catalogued and organised his thousands of papers, files, cassettes and notebooks, and made them available to researchers and readers. What follows is a series of previously unpublished fragments from Roger’s work at Walnut Tree Farm, selected from the archive by Luke Neima and arranged seasonally. They offer glimpses through the remarkable eyes of the man who lived for so long in this remarkable landscape.
There’s a great spring-cleaning wind blowing away the dross of winter and ushering in the beginning of spring from the west. By the time it reaches Suffolk, the west wind has warmed itself over the Atlantic, then picked up all the scents of hazel catkins on the Burren, heather on Dartmoor and Exmoor, and the lichened oak woods of Wales, before flowing across Suffolk and the open Brecklands bending the reed tops on the fens and snapping my old maple tree off its westernmost roots, half severed by a digger in the ditch last year.
Yesterday the ash arch began to come into leaf, just sprouting at the tips of the laid horizontal branches at first, and then a few flowers. Wild hops suddenly leaping and grappling up the grey, smooth ladies’ stockings ash bark. The quince and cow parsley and ash blossom/leaf all began on the same day, when the wind went round and four swallows appeared. They flew over the house and then turned left and disappeared somewhere else. How I longed for them to stop here instead. They took a turn or two overhead, then just went. To Monks Hall in Syleham, perhaps. A moorhen is sitting on a nest in the front moat, too. Ash seedlings are coming through, and maple. Mistletoe and the kisses allowed beneath it, so long as it has berries. The white, the green and the gold of the plant and its legendary hardwood (it was once used to make spears). The only tree to leaf in midwinter and therefore magical. Kisses were forbidden at all other seasons except the anarchic, rambunctious Saturnalia.
The three woods are all very different. Stubbing’s is yellow with primroses, Gipping is pale pink white with wood anemones, or dark green with the shining leaves of ramsons, or snaked about with the blotched leaves of early purple orchids. Burgate is surprisingly bare of flowers, except in a few particular places, where there are beds of primroses or a tiny patch of lungwort or another tiny patch of herb Paris and early purple orchids.
We live in symbiotic association with trees – they are an intimate part of all our lives. We eat of them, open and shut them to go in and out of our houses and bedrooms. We play cricket with them, we sail the seas with them and row boat races with them. We eat our daily bread on them, we warm ourselves before them at the hearth, we sit on them, play croquet with them, canoe rivers in them, grow runner beans up them, build sheds and shacks out of them, sit underneath their shade in summer, reading books or picnicking, read them every morning on the train to work or borrow them from the library.
The roots of trees are a great mystery. Some, like the fig and the eucalyptus, are capable of putting down phenomenally deep systems. Somehow, they know the water is there beneath the ground, and they know where it is. How do they know? There’s a story of a fig that thrust its roots deep into the ground along the wall of All Souls College in Oxford and a root was found in the wine cellar, growing clean through the cork and into a bottle of vintage port.
Plunging into the cool green depths of a daydream always feels very much the same as swimming out across the dark bed of a wood. The book has leaves, the words are twigs, the trees whisper and breathe, and lovers record their passions in the bark, especially in the smooth bark of the beech, the buche – the book of love.
My sense of loss, of expulsion from paradise, stays with me since my father died when I was seventeen. I think my strong desire to find and buy a ruin – this house – and to repair it, to bring it back to life, to breathe new life into it, has been a way of bringing my father back to life. It is the same with my efforts at conservation, my interest in it. I don’t want things to die, to become extinct. I want to breathe new life into things and fight to defend their life.
A hot day, and I was in and out of the moat five or six times. Cleared some weeds in the boat. Slept in the railway wagon, as I did the night before. Deep, dreaming sleep; again a boat and islands and deep tidal channels somewhere – to the south of Spain, Ibiza or Mallorca. An indeterminate dream-landscape, tentatively trying to sail a boat I’m not fully in command of, which I don’t quite understand.
On Thursday, with the heat: a dozen little yellow-striped hoverflies at work on a white umbelliferae flower like a sea; a drunken bee asleep at the wheel on the blue globe of an echinops flower, too drunk with pollen to move.
I go weeding the moat.
Ask yourself unlikely questions about water, come at it from every angle. What lives in it – beneath its surface? Why is water like our own minds? There are the thoughts that flit about on its surface, but the real world of the mind all goes on beneath, in the depths of the unconscious mind, which are like the depths of the ocean. That’s the part of us that dreams.
The little purring, soft, bubbling calls of rooks as they fly home together.
I walked down to the railway meadow and surprised a pair of feral cats down there, one black, hunting in the felled rows of cut hay, one white, basking in the sun. I suspect the white one is deaf, as white cats often are, and that it uses the black one as a bodyguard, to warn it of approaching dangers. Both cats raced off into the wood when they noticed me, first the black one, followed by the white.
Out in the flowery hay, the meadow browns floated up wherever I went in their lolling flight, and the little gatekeeper butterflies winked their wings, almost like a chorus of thanks for being left alone.
Yesterday afternoon I picked blackberry in the hedge I laid a few years ago, now billowing back into exuberant life. It is almost September and the south-facing bushes are a glistening black cascade of berries. They come tumbling into the bowl, as full of purple juice as grapes. Earwigs and spiders drop in too, scrambling up the sides to escape and sliding back to be lost again under the mound of nuggets.
Back in the kitchen I dissected one of the best of the fruit, prising off each fruitlet with a pair of tweezers to count them. As I did so, they burst and the juice splashed on the sheet of paper underneath, smudging into a misty purple watercolour of bramble bushes. There were sixty-four fruitlets on both the blackberries I dissected, then I weakened and ate the rest in a bowl with yoghurt.
Wasps and greenbottles crawled about the bramble bush on the fruit and a red admiral sucked in an ecstasy of intoxication completely still, just flexing its wings in pleasure now and then.
I take my rug outside to shake and lay it on the terrace and another red admiral comes and suns itself on the Turkish pattern’s butterfly colours.
There is always something devotional about lighting a fire; praying it will kindle and take off with its own life. It is a kind of birth since it often requires bellows, there’s something musical about it too. And its careful construction twig by twig when the glow comes and the first tiny flames struggle out of the darkness is certainly architecture. It is also physics because you are learning about energy and mass, and their delicate relationship, how one turns into the other, leaving only a warmer room and a little ash to scatter on the roots of the russet-apple tree, or the potato garden.
The hearth is quite obviously the most sacred, numinous place in the house. It lies at its centre, and it is the only part of the house that opens to the skies. Everything in the house points towards it, and everyone is drawn towards its warmth and comfort and above all, fascination. It has a life of its own, it demands to be fed.
Thought I heard something ‘ticking’ by the desk facing the moat. It is a beetle – small, brown, long-bodied, that seems caught in a spider’s web and is ‘ticking’ with periodic convulsions so that it uncoils like a spring with a ‘click’. I also notice a much longer beetle-hole in the beam. Could it be deathwatch? Not sure it is: it’s the right size, but doesn’t look quite right in colour and is a little too long and thin. Rotten pollard willow tops are deathwatch habitat and they’re often brought into the house on firewood. I observe the beetle in a jam jar. I will let it go on a rotten willow in the morning. Half the firewood I bring in to store in the hearth is probably infested with bulbs. I hate the word ‘inglenook’ – too folksy.
All sorts of things wander in and out of this house. Newts appear late at night, strolling across my study carpet. They seem to know where they’re going, and just disappear again if I leave them alone. Sometimes I pick them up and leave them in a flower bed. Toads turn up too, and there’s one in residence just outside the door, fooled by the escaping heat into thinking it’s spring, and croaking gently all evening. There must be all kinds of cracks and corners creatures can wriggle through, and anyway, the doors stand open most of the summer and autumn, and on sunny days in winter when the wood stove sometimes overheats my study.
The trustful way a moth or dragonfly will cling to your hand, or walk about on it.
There are respectable precedents for spending time observing insects. Nabokov spent years chasing blue butterflies or peering at them through his microscope. It didn’t stop him writing. Insects live closer to the land than we do – and the moon and stars too, as far as I can see – responding to nuances in the weather or the lunar calendar, or just a molecule or two of each other’s pheromones on the night air, with fanatical fervour.
Our Suffolk common just outside this window, and the four meadows and their hedgerows have been buzzing with insects all spring and summer. Even now, in November, the butterflies keep waking up inside the house and flapping at the window, trailing spiders’ webs like bits of torn dress. And ichneumon flies drone loudly round the room as soon as the wood-stove cranks up the temperature past seventy, emerging from the crevices and peg holes in the beams they spent hours sampling on the wing a month or two ago, like divers looking for eels.
A spider’s web follows the same plan as a tree trunk. I have counted fifty-nine concentric threads on the spider’s web stretched across my windows and measured its diameter as seven inches, although it is more oval than round.
Dolomedes (fimbriatus) carries echoes of Archimedes – also associated in my mind with water, through the famous bath in which he is supposed to have discovered his laws of displacement. The spider relies on another of the laws of physics: surface tension, and the power of the meniscus to buoy up its eight legs spread out across the surface. There’s something wise and ancient about spiders too: the feeling that there is a considerable intelligence at work as they watch you.
Entering a wood is to enter an element as different as the sea. The subterranean world of the wood floor, sometimes silent, sometimes noisy with chainsaws and work, full of song, people, clattering axes, human work and the crackling of fire.
The stump of my grandfather’s arm where his hand had been amputated looked exactly the same as a tree looks when it heals after a limb has been sawn off. The bark grows together around and over the wound, and it flows towards the centre and meets like water. Grandpa reacted the same way as a tree to the trauma of amputation: he grew up faster and he grew in stature and strength. Plus: he put his roots down deeper. His arm, sans hand, looked like a cigar stub.
One of my greatest pleasures in life is to turn my compost heap. There’s a touch of archaeology about it as you peel off successive layers of half-rotted weeds, and something of the quiet satisfaction of counting banknotes. I have my own gang of tiny alchemists, millions of them, all busy turning the dross of old banana skins, potato peel and grass cuttings into the golden, delicious fragrance that will feast this year’s salad crop and increase the roses. In winter, you might be stoking a fire, so much steam billows out of the heap, and you can warm your frozen fingers in it. As a vegetable power station, the compost heap is a shanty town for the occasional rat or mouse family, or anything else that likes to keep warm and sheltered. Other people get slow-worms or snakes, but I haven’t been so lucky, although I did get a fat, orange-bottomed bumblebee this summer, nesting in the cliff face left by my spade where I quarried.
‘Vicious’ is the word that springs to mind to describe blackthorn. Call me a masochist or perverse, but I still love these sea urchins of our hedgerows, spiny foot soldiers that will prick you like a wasp or puncture a tractor tyre swifter than a thought. The entire bush is armoured with batteries of hypodermic syringes.
Whenever I’ve wanted to express what I feel about a particular wood or tree, I have simply gone out and begun some hard physical work with that species, and the wood has never failed to speak to me, to give up its secrets as if they had been withheld to all but the supplicant willing to devote an hour or two of hard labour and expend some effort, even sustain some pain, in the pursuit of the truth about that particular tree. You have to commune with the wood, and to do that you have to work.
Sometimes when I wake up, I see a window or a wall, and wonder, ‘Where am I, whose house is this? Which country am I in? Is this a hotel or the bedroom of a friend? A lover?’
Then slowly I remember I am in my own house, and it is just another bedroom. I sleep around, you see, moving from one bedroom to the other, alternating vacant bedrooms or visiting the satellite dens in the fields.
Outside my windows, I hear industrious tapping, like a gardener at work. Is he banging home a fencing post, or mending a gate? It sounds like hammering, and is the vigorous percussion of a thrush’s beak and a snail. This thrush is constantly at work at certain particular anvils around the house. One by the pile of peg tiles next to the ash arch, one by the woodshed close to a young walnut tree.
The first thing I see in my window when I wake up is woods. Twelve in one, sixteen in the other – subdivisions of the window. Each frames trees, a lattice of branches, and beyond, a Suffolk sky. Sun just beginning to show from the clouds.
Ash trees kissing and plaiting (maples too) like lovers on the sides of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. ‘For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!’ A frozen kiss. The embrace of ivy lianas in the ash leaves an impression, a dent, in the bark. The word is ‘ingrained’.
The meandering of a river and the sinuous curving branches of an old coppiced ash are one and the same. They express and map the constant fluctuations in the forces in the world. If an ash tree grows first this way and then that, it is responding to changing conditions of light around it.
I remember studying the leaf and the details of the stomata, cutting delicate sections of leaf with a barber’s cut-throat razor, honed on a leather strop at the front of the laboratory classroom. The wonder of stomata. The central political act which our whole future hinges on is that of the exchange of carbon dioxide into and out of the atmosphere, and the release of that element D.H. Lawrence pondered, the very essence of our continued survival: oxygen.
To see each tree as an oxygen factory, and as a trap and reservoir of carbon. So that the best way we can possibly contain and immobilise carbon is to lock it into a tree and utilise that tree as timber and make from it something of lasting beauty.
Artwork © Jonathan Gibbs