Roger Deakin's "Notes from Walnut Tree Farm"

Katya Johnson

17 September 2013

Roger Deakin, environmental campaigner and Friends of the Earth veteran, died in 2007. But fortunately for us, the spirit of his life is beautifully captured in the posthumous Notes from Walnut Tree Farm.

I first came across this book on the kitchen table of a friend’s house. I opened the first pages and was immediately hooked. Part-autobiography, part-nature diary, it is made up of fragments of writing centred around Deakin’s home, Walnut Tree Farm.

Walnut Tree Farm

Deakin lived in this farmhouse, deep in the East Anglian countryside, for the majority of his life. In an article for “The Guardian” Robert MacFarlane, Deakin’s life-long friend and fellow nature writer, remembers Walnut Tree Farm:

“It is as close to a living thing as a building can be. […] He kept the doors and the windows open, in order to let air and animals circulate. Leaves gusted in through one door and out of another. Swallows flew to and from their nest in the main chimney. It was a house which breathed.”

Turner with his palette

Deakin recorded the activity of the natural world around him with the precision of a scientist, or an artist. “Looking, just looking, is all we have to do, to see the essential truth,” he wrote. “This is all Turner did, with his travelling palette.”

Deakin speaks to us as a carpenter, a horticulturist, a swimmer and a nature connoisseur. Whether he is observing the hedgerows, the birds that feed at his peanut dispenser, or the ants that scurry across his desk, it’s the detail of the natural world, “a jungle in miniature”, that fascinates him.

This is not to say that Deakin’s writing is lacking in human detail. The fragments of writing – or “jottings” as Deakin calls them – are marked by humour and compassion. At one point he advises, “If you want to know what it’s like to be a tree, sleep with a cat on your bed and feel it manoeuvering and exploring your curves and hollows for the most comfortable nest.”

The environmentalist

Deakin wasn’t only a writer – he was an environmentalist too. During his lifetime he worked with many campaigning groups such as Friends of the Earth – and Common Ground which he co-founded in 1982. In Notes from Walnut Tree Farm Deakin mentions rallies and protests he attends, and talks about his campaigner friends.

Deakin believed passionately in wildlife conservation and social justice. Because of this, there is a strain of sadness, a “sense of loss”, that runs through the book. For instance, every year he counts fewer numbers of orange-tip butterflies and wild flowers by his home on Mellis Common. Central to Deakin is the erosion of old rural habitats and lost ways of life.

I want to be a weed

In the March section of “Notes from Walnut Tree Farm”, Deakin writes, “I want all my friends to come up like weeds, and I want to be a weed myself, spontaneous and unstoppable. I don’t want the kind of friends one has to cultivate.”

This is characteristic Deakin, firm in his belief in liberty, vigour and life. “Notes on Walnut Tree Farm” captures this personal philosophy so well – which is why it’s such an invaluable read.  

Buy the book

Get a great discount and free p&p from The Book Depository. Friends of the Earth receives a 5% donation from your order, at no extra cost to you.

Katya Johnson, Publishing and New Media team

Subscribe to this blog by email using Google's subscription service