The following piece appeared on the Caught by the River website on 27th September 2015. It was one of a series of tributes marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Roger Deakin.
Compare and contrast:
Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.
—Gilbert White, Letter VII to the Honourable Daines Barrington, The Natural History of Selborne.
If ever you catch quite a beginner, and want to give him a taste for Botany, tell him to make a perfect list of some little field or wood.
—Charles Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker, 15 June 1855.
You could spend a lifetime studying a hedgerow, or a pond.
—Roger Deakin, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm.
When I was reading around, trying to hone in on exactly what I wanted my first book to be about, these quotations from three favourite authors leapt out the page at me: keep it local; find stuff out; concentrate on the little things. Gilbert White wrote about the swallows and hedgehogs in his local patch; Charles Darwin, when he wasn’t busy explaining the meaning of life, wrote about barnacles and earthworms; Roger Deakin made notes about crane-flies struggling in a spider’s web in his study. So, why shouldn’t I write about my local Moor, and the things I encounter there?
Notes from Walnut Tree Farm is by far my favourite Roger Deakin book. His assembled notes and jottings are packed full of ideas. The signal-to-noise ratio is phenomenal. Here’s a random example:
What were once lapwings on the plough in late autumn or winter are now seagulls on the gleaming new sods in August. A footpath sign points forlornly at uninterrupted stubble as though pointing at something departed.
A 36-word prose poem that might easily inspire an entire book—or a PhD thesis.
Every time I re-read Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, I wonder whether I’m missing a trick. In this age of the 140-character tweet and the Facebook Like, plenty of people rightly bemoan the loss of serious long-form writing. But if 36 words can tell a story of changing farming practices and the decline of the British countryside, perhaps there’s a place for short-form writing too. As Deakin himself observes:
Much as I enjoy the process of writing and the exercise of my own skill and craft in getting it right, none the less I would often prefer to be a jotter.
Jottings, in their spontaneity and complete absence of any craft, are often so much truer to what I actually feel or think at a given moment.
It’s always debatable whether writing never intended for publication should be published posthumously. Philip Larkin’s secretary and former lover, Betty Mackereth, is both vilified and praised for honouring the poet’s dying wish by destroying his 25 volumes of diaries. But reading such writing is perhaps the best way to get inside the mind of a great writer. Charles Darwin’s epic Correspondence (22 volumes so far, with more to follow) tells us far more about Darwin the man, and the way he thought, than reading On the Origin of Species ever could. Editors Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker, encouraged by Roger Deakin’s literary executor, Robert Macfarlane, did the world a great service in curating and publishing his thought-provoking notes.
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