Monday 30 March 2009

Where the Wildwoods are

Instead of getting out into the fresh air, I've been reading about getting out into the fresh air. The book currently at the top of the stack is 'Wildwood' by Roger Deakin. It's a collection of eloquent and passionate essays about trees and forests. I'm only about a third of the way through so far, but am thoroughly enjoying it.

'Wildwood' is a memoir and a study in both social and natural history. Although the emphasis is on Britain, there are also essays on continental Europe and Australia. (I haven't got to those yet.) An early chapter on moth-hunting in Essex is enchanting. In a few pages, we read about moth biology, their vernacular names (most dating from the 1600s), Vladimir Nabokov as writer and Harvard lepidopterist, and the world's largest moth trap.
The first moth to fly in after I arrived was a sturdy little creature with dark-brown striated forewings. It settled on the sheet, quivering all over the way moths do, and Philip said 'uncertain'. Joe wrote a note in his book, and I assumed they weren't sure what it was, until they explained this actually was its name: the uncertain, a member of the Noctuidae, like its relation, the anomalous. I asked Joe which moth he dreamt of seeing one fine night, and he chose the alchymist, a woodland denizen that feeds on oak and elm … Just then there was a sudden flurry of arrivals: a common wainscot, several green carpets, a straw underwing, and two or three scorched carpets … As our nocturnal callers arrived, the lepidopterists announced them like major-domos at a ball: 'Large yellow underwing, iron prominent, lesser cream wave, brimstone moth, lime-speck pug.'

In another chapter, Deakin talks about the importance of willows in the British landscape, how they are cultivated and processed, which varieties are best for which use (baskets, eel-traps, the frame of a guardsman's bearskin), and how to make a cricket bat — from planting the tree (a variety of white willow that originated in Suffolk around 1870) to polishing the bat's blade with a horse's shinbone. It's more than a craft; it's an art.

I haven't got as far as the Aussie chapters, but I've had a peek at them. (I couldn't resist.) Deakin writes about travelling around the Macdonnell Ranges with Ramona Koval and ethnobotanist Peter Latz; gathering bush plums near Utopia in Central Australia; exploring the Whipstick Mallee with artist John Wolseley; and roaming the Pillaga Scrub with Eric Rolls.

But the journey to Australia passes tales of the Green Man and wood henges (circles of wooden posts), interviews with sculptors and archaeologists, and journeys through French chestnut groves and Ukrainian beech forests. I'm looking forward to the voyage.