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Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

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Now it is my turn. Topping up my glass for courage, I speak of Kazakhstan’s two great gifts to the world: the cultivated apple and the tamed horse. However, I say with a flourish, I have today discovered a third: the best hospitality in the world. And so it goes on, with more toasts, and yet more elaborate and sincere compliments, all expressed in the declamatory tones of a bard reciting an epic poem. Since the Kazakhs are the proud possessors of a great tradition of oral poetry, passed on by the bards, or akyns, in competitive recitals known as aiytis, it is not surprising that oratory seemed to come quite naturally to those present. In the foothills and valleys of the Tien Shan range, the new apple found itself in a genuine paradise. Bears, deer and wild pigs lived in the spreading woodlands, eating the wild fruit in autumn and selecting the sweeter, juicier apples while bees laboured in the pollination department of the same evolutionary project. The bears, living in the abundant caves of the Tien Shan, were avid fruit-eaters, and pips could pass through their guts unharmed to germinate in the dung. As Juniper pointed out, the baseball-glove claws of bears are perfectly suited to the grasping of apples. He had seen how enthusiastically they will vandalize a tree bearing a favourite sweet apple, dragging off whole branches in a kind of rough pruning. Out on the steppe, huge herds of wild horses and donkeys also browsed on the ripe apples and helped them spread westwards and south along the range towards what is now Almaty. Like the bears, they kept on selecting the larger, juicier, sweeter apples, so that as it spread west, the apple gradually became larger. At the same time this evolutionary pressure changed it from a ‘bird’ fruit with edible seeds to a ‘mammal’ fruit with poisonous seeds. The bitter taste of apple pips is cyanide, and the smooth, hard, teardrop seed coat evolved as the perfect streamlined vehicle to pass intact through an animal’s guts. Five of us pile into Ali Khan’s red Russian jeep in brilliant early sunshine and set off for the Talgar Valley and its wild fruit forests. Our route runs via Talgar, a large village in the hills about forty miles south-east of Almaty. In 1936 Fitzroy Maclean, whose book Eastern Approaches had informed my own journey, travelled exactly the same way on his first excursion out of Almaty, finding a place on a lorry heading out of the city. On reaching Talgar, he set off into the hills on foot, followed by the NKVD secret service agents who tailed him everywhere, but they were local men, and Maclean ended up being entertained to lunch with them in a peasant cottage in the hills.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin | Goodreads

I read the catalogue with trepidation, anxious at the thought of seeing Roger's life reduced to a data-set. But it turned out to be a wonderful document: an accidental epic prose-poem of his life, or a dendrological cross-section of his mind. File RD/TW/5/1/7, for instance, contains entries for: "Calvados; bristlecone pines; dachas; diving; jungle boys and land girls; pixies; protestors; skylarks; timber frame houses" – along with about 70 others: a zany haberdashery of Roger's interests. Cryptic entries abound: "The Oriental Rat Flea" or "Nudged by Languid Mullet". File RD/WLOG/1/1/2 contains "Complete MS of Waterlog with corrections. (With a strong fishy smell)". Na Parte Dois um dos capítulos é dedicado ao escultor inglês David Nash (n. 1945), um artista que trabalha a madeira e que faz esculturas com árvores “vivas”.

So some authors you not only feel you would like to know in person, but actually do already know. Roger Deakin is one of the latter. As is his friend, Robert Macfarlane. They reference one another in their respective books – or at least Macfarlane references Deakin a great deal (perhaps the result of a greater affection and/or generosity on his part?) – and as a result you as a reader of both writers can’t help but feel yourself enclosed in a sort of literary hortus conclusus. No doubt, unless the circumstances were just right, any real-life attempt to recreate this sense of closeness would probably be doomed to failure. In fact, I always avoid meet-and-greets with authors and musicians whose work I admire for this very reason: any encounter with a mere mortal is bound to always disappoint, partly because of the joint self-consciousness arising from the pressure of so artificial a situation, and partly because the version of them that one has nursed and harboured within one's mind – for a lifetime in some cases – can only bear the slightest of resemblances to a flesh-and-blood person living outside one's mind. This problem, however, is not likely to present itself where Roger Deakin is concerned as he has been dead for just over a decade.

Roger Deakin, wild swimmer and author of Waterlogged - BBC Roger Deakin, wild swimmer and author of Waterlogged - BBC

I spent the afternoon wandering around the farm, exploring the landscape. There was a quiet stillness to the place — a melancholy of loss. But at the same time, everywhere I looked I could see Roger’s presence: it overflowed from the lush wildness encroaching every inch of the landscape; and in the material objects of shepherd huts, abandoned vehicles, his chair by the moat, the piles of wood he had chopped, and the bath tub in which he wallowed. Walnut Tree Farm is the place that Roger built, created from the deep and mutual relationship of a man and the land, intimately shaping each other.

I don't know what I was expecting from this book. Maybe an insight into the mythological impact of woods and how they have shaped our culture and our way of life. I wonder if Valery has a wife, and what he does for comforts. He clearly likes the life, and says so. He says the Talgar hills have their own completely different climate. In winter there can be three feet of snow for weeks. In Almaty it can be five below zero and here it may be a warm 20 degrees. We are a bit of a delegation, and it feels wrong to ask him too many personal questions: we’re intruding on a peaceful, almost monastic life in one of the most beautiful places on earth. In spring, says Valery, there’s an explosion of bees and flowers. These saffron meadows burst into flame with tulips, and the hills are a huge snowfield of wild apple, apricot and hawthorn blossom.

East to Eden – Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane East to Eden – Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane

I remember entering the steep-eaved barn into whose topmost room the archive had slowly been gathered. Up two ladders, through a trapdoor, and into the narrow attic. Dusty slant light from a gable window. And boxes: 60 or 70 of them, all but filling the space. A life condensed to a room. I felt overwhelmed, partly by sadness and partly by hopelessness. How could this volume of documents ever be brought under control? Wildwood is about the element wood, as it exists in nature, in our souls, in our culture and our lives. Outside in the wide expanse of the Republiky Alangy, a wedding party is assembled on the steps of the Monument to Independence in bright sunshine. A little folk-band with an accordion, a two-stringed dombra and a drum like an Irish bodrun plays Kazakh tunes. Some of the wedding guests dance together, while others pose for photographs, all dressed to the nines in suits and ties or bright dresses. Luisa flags down another Lada, and we race to meet the Director of the Almaty Botanical Gardens and distinguished member of the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences, Professor Isa Omarovich Baitulin. Lunching together on borsch and tea, we make plans for a visit the next day to the wild apple forests of the Talgar Valley, some thirty miles to the east of Almaty. After so much preparation and difficulty, I can hardly believe this is happening. Isa cuts a magnificently handsome figure with the oval face, high cheekbones, narrow eyes and olive skin of the Mongol Kazakhs. To our amazement, this fit and agile man turns out to be in his eighties. But he has spent much of his life outdoors, studying the fungi that live in close association with the roots of trees.

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I’m sad to leave the solitary Valery, whom I instinctively like. When we shake hands, it is the two-handed lingering double-clasp kind with a deep look into the eye. The look says, ‘We come from vast distances apart on this earth, yet I feel a natural, spontaneous respect for you. It is very moving, that we far-flung people from different tribes are clearly first natural friends, not enemies at all.’ I very nearly catch myself making the little speech, but restrain myself in time. Luisa and I buy a litre jar of Valery’s best wild apple-blossom honey to share. When Valery hands it over, it feels like a blessing—the palpable proof of the goodness and beauty of the place, and the wild apples. I experience the same feeling when I look around the faces of my new friends: the first thing I see in them is their beauty, and I rejoice in the diversity of human genes that made them, as the flower genes seeking each other in the pollen made the honey. Mellis was Roger Deakin's ecological base from which he made forays: to other parts of East Anglia (he taught in Diss for three years), to the Lake District, the West Country and to Jura for Waterlog and to Kyrgistan to find the original apple trees and Tasmania to see the world's oldest untouched forests for Wildwood: a journey through trees, his book about the human love of wood. It was all undertaken on a shoestring: camping, hostelling, sleeping in bus shelters. He was a true free spirit, anchored to the home dirt he loved on Mellis Common, but open and eager to see what was happening on the other side of the world. Roger Deakin (2007). Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees. Hamish Hamilton Ltd. ISBN 978-0-241-14184-7.

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