Roger Deakin and Robert MacFarlane’s powerful stories are ideal reading for 2022 and beyond.
The ongoing seclusion and separation worldwide because of COVID-19 have prevented physical journeys throughout most of 2022. As a result, there is little we can do but think about returning to normal. It has become common to dismiss the force the environment has to protect and heal us. Swimming like an otter, walking through the open countryside, or hiking to the top of mountains may be safer than being stuck in a room with family or strangers. Readers should know Roger Deakin and Robert MacFarlane have written essential pieces of literature that boil it down to this; they share the vision that it’s safer in the water. There’s shelter from harm when communing with the environment; the top of a mountain provides sanctuary for many. Through their well-written prose, Deakin and MacFarlane’s stories will transport you on a personal voyage.
Roger Deakin, an English writer, documentary maker, and environmentalist, purchased Walnut Tree Farm in Suffolk in the late 90s, a rundown, maundering sixteenth-century farmhouse with a moat. Underground springs fed the moat, and plant and animal life thrived in the water filtered through the clear green freshwater. Deakin swam year-round in the water when he was at home. He believed natural water held magical powers to cure. He thought cold water was beneficial to your health.
By 1996, Deakin had become obsessed with a swimming journey throughout Britain. He recollects his love of swimming had grown out of his childhood chicanery with the local swimming champion, his Uncle Laddie, who encouraged him and his friends to break through locks and swim in forbidden pools. Enthusiasm for the project grew deeper and deeper as Deakin dreamed about water. He quoted writer T. H. White from The Sword in the Stone- “There is practically no difference between flying in the water and flying in the air… It was like the dreams people have.”
Further inspired by John Cheever’s 1964 short story The Swimmer, Deakin set off to swim across the countryside with detailed capsule descriptions of seas, rivers, lakes, fens, and spas. As he and MacFarlane agreed, “swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries; the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the poll, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like a metamorphosis happens. You go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world.”
Deakin published his first book, Waterlog, and introduced the world to the art of wild water swimming in 1999, which has become a movement in England and Scotland in the past two decades. Just as prominent men before him, like celebrated naturalists Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, who dominated the latter part of that century with their outstanding writing about nature and adventure, Deakin wrote in heightened simile to enlighten other souls to the beauty and joy of the outdoors. Deakin gave readers a “magically defamiliarizing ‘frogs-eye’ view of the country.” Deakin’s prose about nature, people, and places will seduce even the least ardent swimmer into dipping their toes in water less than 60 degrees and attract you to the intimate secrets of nature all around you.
Anecdotes abound in the multitude of chapters in Waterlog, 36 chapters to be exact. In Chapter 3, entitled “Lord of the Flies,” Deakin describes failing to observe the “PRIVATE FISHING” notice on the Itchen River banks infamously known for its spectacular trout fishing. Jumping into the swift current and exiting downstream through a “lovely water meadow,” two angry Englishman, one of them the College River Keeper (yes, there is such a title), confronted him. Asked if the sign on the fence meant anything to him, Deakin responded, “But surely, we should all have access to swim in our rivers, just as we should be free to walk in our own countryside. Don’t they belong to us all?” Deakin’s priceless response reflects his attitude toward the land and water.
On the one hand, the College River Keeper might have been right; swimmers might frighten away trout. But Deakin maintained rivers are for everyone to enjoy. Most readers will readily agree that Deakin will swim anywhere and everywhere in the upcoming chapters, no matter what the signs say.
Deakin and MacFarlane met in 2002, and despite their 30-year age difference and different modes of travel through Ireland, England, and beyond, the two became friends. Deakin wrote, “he wanted his friendships to grow ‘like weeds’… spontaneous and unstoppable.” They both agreed that nature was a metamorphosis and metempsychosis; they understood the ebb and flow of life and natural forces. Although both men swam and explored secluded locations, neither felt isolated from the world.
While Deakin was swimming throughout England and Scotland, award-winning author Robert MacFarlane recorded his celebration of England’s land and scenery. MacFarlane, a landscape, nature, people, and language literature writer, exposed people to the peaceful and satisfying outdoors and brought attention to the natural world around them. By 2003, MacFarlane had won The Guardian First Book Award, The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and The Somerset Maugham Award for his premier book Mountains of the Mind, which chronicles his relationship with the mountains, part history and part memoir.
In 2012, MacFarlane wrote The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, where he recorded ancient pathways and walkways across Britain. Later in his career, the collective compositions in his 2017 book Landmarks introduced readers to the countryside’s language that could soon be obsolete. MacFarlane’s prose contains ancient words from Gaelic, East Anglian, Old English, and others describing landscape, nature, water, and weather. The poetic descriptions, such as rhaeadr, Welsh for waterfall or eagmin mall, Gaelic for the meandering river, will transport your imagination to a fascinating place away from desolation and loneliness.
Deakin was close to death in 2006 and contacted MacFarlane to be his literary executive. He had only one published book, Waterlog, which had become a national bestseller in England and Scotland, and had one or more books in the works. In addition, Deakin had thousands of journals and notebooks stored at his home, stories, and notes of his observations and travels throughout the Pyrenees, Australia, Asia, and China, and the Talgar Valley in Kyrgyzstan. He went as far as Talgar to find the Ur-apple, thought to be the domestic apple’s ancestor, carried by the Romans to present-day Britain; Deakin transported seeds to home in England and planted them to be surrounded by ancient trees. Deakin wanted MacFarlane to be the keeper of the written words he had logged as he spent his entire life on a never-ending quest to understand and record the natural world around him.
MacFarlane dedicated his admiration of Deakin in the Sunday Times Number One Bestseller Landmarks. Described as a “field guide to the literature of nature,” Landmark’s essays extend across the landscape, with chapters paying homage to the “Flatlands,” the “Uplands,” and the “Coastlands,” and “The Woods and the Water,” which praised the language of the Waterlands and dedicated to Roger Deakin. MacFarlane asks the reader to join him on his pilgrimages and displays the power of language. He said it is “a word-hoard of the astonishing lexis for landscape that exists in the comprision of islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as Britain and Ireland.” Here lies the intersection between both books, Waterlog and Landmarks. Overall, we should read each book for the individual style Deakin and MacFarlane bring to the art of storytelling and their ability to capture our attention away from our current separation from the land and water.
MacFarlane praised Deakin in his book as a visionary and described him as a man who “thought not just about water, he thought in water or with water. His imagination was watery, not in the sense of dilute, but in the sense of ductile, mobile, lucid, reflective.” Deakin described his mindset in the multitude of notebooks he ascribed. “All water, river, sea, pond, lake, holds memory and the space to think.” Without the two men’s short yet intimate friendship, readers would have lost the personal revelations MacFarlane discovered in one of a thousand boxes Deakin left behind. Their shared relationship gifts readers with the innermost thoughts of both writers as we travel through Waterlog and then Landmarks.
MacFarlane directs our attention to Deakin’s iconic swim at the famous rock pool Dancing Ledge on the Dorset coast, which readers should not overlook; Deakin’s composition in Chapter 13 of Waterlog entitled “Swimming in the Fowey” is hypnotic yet soothing.
“The Dancing Ledge is a dramatic petrified beach, with the waves sliding in across it, kicking spray high into the air as they slap and thump into the cliffs beside it, hollowing them out with great thuds you can feel through your feet, ricocheting in reversed surf that races back out to the sea and collides head-on with the incoming waves in more fireworks of spray. The restless Dorset Sea fondles and gropes at the rock shelf like a lover’s hand sliding up a stockinged thigh. The pool is a gash in the rock pavement ten feet wide and twenty-five feet long, and when the tide is up the snowy waves shampoo over the rocks and waterfall off its seaweed rim. A thousand streamlets flow restlessly back into it each time the water recedes, and a dozen suns shine back at you off the cratered rock.”
MacFarlane allows us to intimately “swim” with Deakin in Landmarks by dedicating an entire chapter entitled The Woods and the Water. New York Times writer Sarah Lyall puts it succinctly when reviewing MacFarlane’s book: it introduced us to writers captivated by the idea “that nature, and how we think about, describe and interact with it, is crucial to living.” Although Dancing Ledge may seem to interest only a small group of swimmers, Deakin’s powerful writing style should draw anyone who cares about the power of nature and the ability of words to swim through their mind like incoming waves.
MacFarlane comments that Deakin’s book’s success significantly influenced the planet, not just the swimming world. MacFarlane describes the word “influence,” defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “The inflowing, immission or infusion (into a person or thing) of any kind of… secret power or principle; that which thus flows in or is infused.” MacFarlane praises Deakin’s ability to infuse himself into people “of possessing a ‘secret power’ to ‘flow’ into and change them.” MacFarlane felt invigorated after reading Waterlog “with a profoundly altered relationship to water.”
Were you not to explore MacFarlane’s chapter on Deakin and overlook his mention of The Isle of Jura, readers would lose the experience of a heart-pounding adventure and the island’s tie to George Orwell. One of the most dangerous stretches of water in the Western Isles of Scotland is the Gulf of Corryvreckan:
“The special menace of the Corryvreckan is created by the sheer force of the Atlantic tidal wave, which sometimes races through the passage at the rate of fifteen knots. The effect of the pyramidal rock is to create a standing wave up to thirty feet high which combines with a welter of eddying turbulence along the shores to create the Corryvreckan whirlpool. What no navigation guide could communicate is the deeply unsettling atmosphere of the place, the intense physical presence of the whirlpool and the scale of the turbulence.”
It is here, on the Isle of Jura, that Orwell escaped after the death of his wife in 1946. He wanted his young son to grow up in the country, far away from London’s bustling city life. So Orwell took up gardening and farming and wrote a manuscript that became the critically acclaimed book Nineteen Eighty-Four. He almost lost his life in 1947 in the Gulf of Corryvreckan when he took his young son and family on a boat ride through the whirlpool. So severe was the turbulence it ripped the outboard motor off the boat. His nephew rowed them out of the chaotic water, which stripped off all their clothes and shoes. Orwell often swam the wild water on that part of the island, and some say the story of his capsizing at Corryvreckan is folklore, but at the very least, Deakin was uneasy with this body of water.
Deakin encountered the maelstrom and turned away. “I feared the whirlpool, therefore it fascinated me and dominated my dreams.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, police forces forbid citizens to believe “wilderness and adventure nourished freedom of thought and action.” Deakin understood Orwell’s attraction to this godforsaken place. “Whirlpools and wild places are inextricably linked with our capacity for creativity.” Deakin reminds us that isolation is sometimes the fuel for creativity.
MacFarlane’s most significant accomplishment to the literary world and readers is his extensive research, which produced several glossaries of words that “shape our sense of place.” He categorized them by region; for example, titles included Flowing Water, Watery Ground, and Moving Water. Next, MacFarlane indexed the names by regional languages, such as Gaelic, Welsh, Old English, and East Anglia, to name a few.
In 2007, MacFarlane became distressed when he read the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s newest edition had culled words concerning nature as “no longer relevant to a modern-day childhood.” The head of children’s dictionaries explained it was necessary to reflect the current environment of today’s children. “The outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual,” MacFarlane wrote, should not occur. Landmarks is a chronicle of these words, almost a history book, preventing the loss of something so precious, the pleasure of the natural world’s language. His inclusion of Deakin in his book is a tribute one should admire, as Deakin loved those “watery” words.
We praise MacFarlane for exploring other nature writers in Landmarks who “use words exactly and exactingly,” but he applauded Deakin’s writing, which taught him to be one with the water.
MacFarlane has said, “Certain books, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.” Deakin’s Waterlog and MacFarlane’s Landmarks should interest those who care about words, nature, and simple pleasure. Both stories speak to anyone who cares about escaping isolation through the power of words. “Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us,” MacFarlane said. “We close a book and for the next hour or two, the world seems oddly brighter at its edges.” These two books will enlighten your life for years on end after the pandemic is over. There can be no better time than now to think about nature.