Terence Blacker: I must ask Roger about that...

He had such an intense, skittish engagement with life that it is hard to think of him in the past tense
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The Independent Online

The walnuts have begun to fall from the tree outside the house where Roger Deakin, the author, broadcaster and environmentalist, died on Saturday. Seeing them on the ground, and thinking of his life, I remembered an incident which had occurred recently while he was researching what will be his last book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees.

He had travelled to Kyrgyzstan to look at the ancient walnut forests, returning with about 60 different samples. Because his researches took him almost immediately to Australia, he hid the walnuts in a cupboard deep in the wonderful warren that was his house. When he returned, he found that a small natural disaster had occurred. Mice had invaded his store, leaving it bare. For weeks afterwards, he would come across the remains of his precious samples in unlikely places, his annoyance soon giving way to a fascinated admiration of the ingeniousness of the small thieves who shared his house.

Roger had such an intense, skittish engagement with life that it is almost impossible to think of him in the past tense. As those who read his extraordinary account of a swimming journey across England, Waterlog, or heard one of his Radio 4 programmes about his house, garden or a journey down the River Waveney, will know, there was something direct and child-like about his enthusiasm. He was a wild Englishman - kind, polite, thoughtful, but with an essentially untamed spirit. In a world that has come to depend on categories and compartments, his curiosity did not so much break barriers as simply fail to see them. There were more important things to consider.

It was that passion to know, to understand and to communicate knowledge and feeling that made Roger such a powerfully personal writer and broadcaster. His perspective was that of a celebrant, heartfelt without being mawkish, personal without tipping into egocentricity, concerned at what man is doing to the environment without ever becoming sour or defeatist. Although he could be enraged by the effects of human greed or by the stupidity of officialdom - bent on preventing the wild river-swimming that he loved, for example - his optimistic and positive spirit would soon re-assert itself as he set off for his next great adventure or campaign.

His intellectual curiosity, an unusual mixture of sophistication and innocence, led him to make connections, from art to wildlife to music to the banalities of everyday social life which, in other hands, might have seemed wilfully eccentric. In Waterlog, he wrote sadly and hilariously about the coypu, a water mammal which escaped from fur farms in East Anglia during the 1970s, becoming a symbol of freedom and defiance for the local alternative community to which Roger belonged, before the last coypu in the Waveney valley "was martyred like Hereward the Wake in some reedy outpost of the marshes in 1989".

A few pages later, he describes listening to the conversation of swallows who nested in the chimney of his house, "intimate and expressive, sometimes bickering, often a cascade of delight ... Now the weather had worsened, I was itching to get a fire going. I caught myself for a moment wishing the birds would hurry up and leave as you sometimes do when a guest lingers that bit too long after dinner. Thomas De Quincey says that people often felt this way about Coleridge, who could be relied upon to arrive for lunch and stay for a week. Whenever such sentiments creep up, I remind myself that I'm a newcomer to this ancient dynasty of nomads, who settled here before I ever appeared on the scene and will, I sincerely hope, long outlast me here."

With an energetic curiosity, Roger was also blessed with an astonishing capacity for remembering things, making him unusually useful as a friend - "I must ask Roger about that," became an almost daily refrain - but it was his generosity of spirit, unconditional, uncomplicated and rare, that made him a rock in the life of those who loved him. He showed all of us the importance of having the courage to take play seriously.

Thinking of him now, one can see that the same delight that he took in what the world and people had to offer was there in every syllable he wrote or broadcast, and was as much a matter of character and feeling as of intelligence. In Recounting in Wildwood (which will be published next summer) he recounts a visit to the sculptor David Nash, and quotes from WB Yeats's poem "A Prayer for Old Age": "God guard me from those thoughts men think/ In the mind alone;/ He that sings a lasting song/ Thinks in a marrowbone."

His life was a cheerful rebuke to those who believe that a writer's days should be contemplative, disengaged and sedentary. Roger not only swam across England, but he had put on a series of concerts in East Anglia, had part-built his own house, had been an inspirational teacher and, in his few spare moments, found time to make strange, wonderful and utterly personal wooden sculptures.

Victim to a swift and merciless illness, Roger's generosity and intelligence were with him until the end. He was curious about what was happening to him and confronted death with the directness with which he had faced life, lifting those who grieved with his courage. On Saturday, he said "It's time to finish," and died a few hours later.

Although, cruelly, he will never need Yeats's prayer for old age, his was, and will continue to be, a lasting song.

terblacker@aol.com

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