Dead Trees

macfarlaneJust before my trip abroad, I came across Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. I remembered Macfarlane’s name from the introduction he wrote to one of my favorites, J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, in the NYRB Classics edition. That was a good sign. And the topic of his book! A best-seller across Ye Pond, The Old Ways is about walking the ancient paths of Britain. Needless to say, I had to read it before walking along some of those very paths, ancient drove roads, and holloways — the very route, perhaps, that my ancestor Thomas Wills (1742-?) took when he crossed from Higher Hisley, a farm in Lustleigh on the eastern slope of Dartmoor, to Tavistock, the old stannary town on the west side of Dartmoor. Of course, we may have the wrong Thomas Wills in that moorish distance, but a Thomas Wills of Tavistock’s son Richard (1762-1833) is a sure link in the genetic chain. He lit out for some completely new ways, joining the British East India Company as a mercenary and never returning, ending up on St. Helena, where Napoleon would be exiled the second, more successful time; his (Richard’s, not Napoleon’s) grandson brought my great great grandfather Robert William Coventry Wills to America from St. Helena as a child in the 1870s. Ah, but I get side-tracked. That’s what happens on a path, when you come to a crossing. So I read The Old Ways, and liked it very much, along with his (Macfarlane’s) earlier The Wild Places; now I look forward to his Mountains of the Mind. hollowayIn eight days of walking 90 miles around the Dartmoor Way, I came across only about a dozen other walkers, two of them fellow Yanks, so perhaps the book’s best-seller-dom was largely of the armchair enthusiastic sort. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, yet I wonder if there’s a comparison between a kind of nostalgia for walking these ancient trails — but not so much the actual walking of them — and the rise in bird-watching, which in some sense is a nostalgic activity because there are fewer and fewer birds to be seen.wildwoodIn Macfarlane, I learned of Roger Deakin. Deakin’s book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, which he finished just before his passing, sounded like it was something I must read, too. “The enemies of woods are always the enemies of culture and humanity,” noted Deakin, stepping aside from his usual politeness. How true that is, even expanded into the “enemies of nature are the enemies of humanity.” Deaking also admitted “I have the kind of weakness for wood other people have for puppies or chocolates.” Like Macfarlanes books, Wildwood is episodic, sometimes only remote woods-oriented, but always fascinating and thought-provoking. I must track his other books down. Inspired by him, I titled this post after the generally disparaging term, used by the digitally-deluded, for physical books, which are, of course, recycled trees. tarka2While abroad, I was also reading Henry Williamson’s Tarka The Otter, which takes place in Devon and hence was mandatory. I also learned about this from Macfarlane. First published in 1927, Tarka has evidently been in print for ever in the UK, but is harder to find on this side of the Big Leat. In London, I purchased a Penguin edition at Waterstones after failing at Foyles (“If you can’t find it there…” said the women in the gift store at the Natural History Musuem). It’s an animal story, but not one for the tots. Written by a veteran of the First World War’s trenches, it is not in the least sentimental. Indeed, it’s the opposite of all that: all the otters come to brutal ends at the hand of man and dog, and long passages detailing otter hunting, a “sport” said to be older than fox hunting — you can vomit over this breezy Sports Illustrated piece about the “sport” from 1955 — brought to mind escaped slaves being hounded. Williamson later joined the British Union of Fascists (cf. Mosley and those Horrible Mitfords, slapped down by old P.G. Wodehouse as the Black Shorts) which rightfully sunk his reputation, and hardly anybody reads his numerous other books anymore, but this intense attempt to see the world from an animal’s point of view (making it quite the double feature with The Peregrine, which may be said to be even more anti-sentimental) came before that grotesquery. It is a rather uneven novel, but one I think bears more recognition over here. The sentimental animal stories so often found in popular culture warp us; Williamson’s red-in-tooth-and-claw veers too far to the other extreme, but is nonetheless a sharp corrective. Interestingly, Rachel Carson considered Tarka a key influence. tarka trail footbridgeThese are lines from Williamson carved into a footbridge over the River Taw on the Tarka Trail. My route, the Dartmoor Way, merged with the TT through lush Belstone Cleave between Sticklepath and Belstone, where the publican at The Tors Inn suggested I drop down into the valley of the East Okement, rejoining the TT towards Okehampton. Done. Then I got back on the DW, which from Okehampton to Tavistock was also the West Devon Way (which was blazed, hallelujah!). Following the TT backwards would have taken me past North Tawton, where Ted Hughes lived for many years. Hughes was fascinated by Tarka, too, and evidently got to know the prickly Williamson. Hughes’ Moortown poems, about the years he helped run his father-in-law’s Devon farm in the 1970s, give you a visceral sense of livestock farming, like fingers reaching into a ewe on a cold morning to help pull out her lamb.

3 Responses to “Dead Trees”


  1. 1 Mark Wilkinson July 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

    That is one fine selection of books.
    I would also encourage a visit to SoundCloud to hear Robert MacFarlane reading from The Old Ways with accompaniment from natural history sound recordist Chris Watson, who’s recordings evoke powerful images and perfectly compliment MacFarlane’s writing…

    This book is worth a look too.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Holloway-Robert-Macfarlane/dp/0571302718

    • 2 mthew July 24, 2013 at 10:01 am

      Thank you, Mark. I’m betting Holloway will be hard to find here, so thanks for that link. And the trip across Scots waters by sound is most evocative.


  1. 1 Books | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on December 18, 2013 at 8:06 am

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