Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
by Roger Deakin
It is probably cheating to review this book as a travel book. Wildwood is a piece of superb writing that defies classification—one part travelogue, one part autobiography and two parts natural history. Not surprisingly there is a great deal of detailed information about trees, from the origins of the ordinary eating apple—the pursuit of which takes the author to the remote Ferghana Valley of Kyrgyzstan—to the insect life attracted by the mulberry tree growing outside the window of his beloved house in the Suffolk countryside of eastern England. In his meditations on trees, he combines the rigorous knowledge of a scientist with the perceptions of a poet. For example after describing precisely what triggers broad-leafed deciduous trees to drop their leaves in the Pyrenees, he quotes W. B. Yeats, "The trees are in their autumn beauty,/ The woodland paths are dry."
Not until more than half way through the 400 pages of Wildwood do we move beyond the shores of Britain. But the close attention Deakin pays to what is on his doorstep makes the bluebell woods of England's Stour Valley and the willow stands of Somerset seem as exotic as places he visits later in the book, such as outback Australia or the Bieszczady Woods in the Ukraine where he and his companion Annette get lost as they try to retrace the steps that Annette's father would have taken to flee back to his family in Poland at the beginning of World War II. While sharing his intimate relationship with landscapes, the author writes prose that immerses the reader in a magical world of nature where cities and roads and shopping malls cease to matter or even exist.
Roger Deakin falls into the worthy tradition of English eccentrics. He travels unconventionally, with a "singularly tatty rucksack", which a hotel porter in Almaty insists on carrying "without a trace of irony". He prizes traditional country crafts and the tools of the past, devoting a couple of pages to praise of the pencil. He knows all about kindling and nothing about Kindle. On his own property he swims in the moat, sleeps in fine weather in a railway wagon parked in one of his fields, and camps alone in a rookery to "gaze up the skirts of the wood". But intimate as his relationship is with nature, he is far from being a hermit. The book is populated with the characters he encounters or seeks out, from an inspirational high school biology teacher to a Kazakh bee-keeper. He is especially drawn to artists and has the rare ability of painting vivid word pictures of paintings and sculptures that capture the rhythms of nature. He has learned the art of observation, but keeps an eye on the big picture as well, persuading his readers that enemies of woods are the enemies of culture and humanity. Here is a writer who can see both the wood and the trees.
Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico
by Hugh Thomson
A more opposite sensibility than Hugh Thomson's in Tequila Oil is hard to imagine, and yet the two authors were friends (until Roger Deakin's recent premature death from a brain tumor). This is a swashbuckling tale of a journey by an alcohol-fuelled 18-year-old who in 1979 drove a gas-guzzler the length of Mexico, without insurance or even a driving license. (One has to feel for the author's mother on first reading about some of the more hair-raising scrapes.) His experiences reminded me of those I heard when I was researching the first edition of my book Work Your Way Around the World just a couple of years after this trip took place. Finding himself periodically broke, Thomson used his knowledge of Spanish to earn money along the way as an interpreter, caretaker of a bankrupt golf resort, and as a used car salesman. Following a dodgy tip-off from a businessman met on his flight to Mexico, he decided to try to make an easy profit by buying an old model Oldsmobile in Texas for $500 and driving it to Belize to sell it.
Whereas Deakin's rambling and unpruned celebration of wood is perfectly in keeping with his love of hedges that are left alone to become as wild as they like, Thomson admires a book that is "as short and direct as a shot of tequila". His sentences are short, insights pithy and the jokes funny. No sign of the naturalist's expertise in ornithology here; for him "the difference between a vulture and a condor is only luck over a haircut". The Mexican friend who helps him locate a car is reminiscent of Bill Bryson's famously idle and useless friend Katz in A Walk in the Woods. Fernando "could make a decision to play another game of pool or pinball seem like a day's work".
Despite the ambient humor, Thomson reveals his genuine affection for Mexico and its people at every turn. He is also a serious and informative commentator on Mexican culture and history. One of his objectives is to debunk the accepted wisdom that the Spanish conquistadors destroyed the noble culture of the Aztecs. After graphically describing the cruelty and barbarity of some Aztec practices, he attempts to rehabilitate Cortés as a hero. Proof that this is more than a light-hearted travelogue is the presence of a detailed index with entries from Cervantes to Graham Greene.
The last 50 pages of the book are titled "Now", as opposed to "Then". As he recollects his gap year in tranquility, there is more than a hint of elegiac regret for lost youth. Thirty years on, he returns to Belize, where he had all those years before finally sold the car for $1000. He is looking for tangible connections with his first visit and (predictably) finds none: the roads have improved, the reefs have been eroded and people met when he was 18 have vanished. This latter part of the book reads like a postscript, and his middle-aged adventures seem a poor shadow of those he had in his youth. In a deserted reggae club, he meets a spaced-out local man swinging in a hammock who opines (unwittingly quoting the poet A. E. Housman) "We all lookin' for the land of lost content, mon. The land of lost content."
Along the Enchanted Way
by William Blacker
The Maramureş region as described in Along the Enchanted Way was literally a land of lost rural contentment. Just after the fall of Communism, the young Englishman, William Blacker, decided to explore Eastern Europe. He stumbled across the Carpathian valleys of northern Romania which harbored a way of life that had barely changed since the middle ages. He had expected to find evidence of Ceauşescu's brutal regime, but instead he found and fell in love with "villages and the countrywide awash with colour and brimming with cheerful, fresh-faced people". Motorized vehicles were all but unknown since these valleys were not accessible by paved road. Like almost everyone else, he had no idea that such a place was hidden away in Europe. Six years later he found a way to return.
Along the Enchanted Way describes a land of almost fairy-tale impossibility. Yet the period it describes begins in 1996. On arrival in the village of Breb, the author makes his way to the home of an elderly childless couple and asks for shelter for the night. Mihai and his wife Maria welcome William into their home, give him food and a bed and assure him that he can stay as long as he wishes. The next sentence comes as a shock to the reader, "In the end I stayed for four years." The result of his long residence results in a book that is in a different league from run-of-the-mill travel books by writers who have only a glancing knowledge of a country. They may have walked the streets with a sharp eye, met an assortment of locals and done their research in the archives. But William Blacker went native, embracing the traditional peasant way of life. He not only describes how hay is made and clothes and tools are fashioned by hand, but he learns how to do some of it for himself (Roger Deakin would definitely approve).
The prose style is perfectly suited to the content. Like the peasants of the Maramureş, his sentences are simple and dignified. Take this exchange on page 28 with a grandmother who let him stay in her hayloft: "Do you have a cow in England?" "No" I replied, "I don't." Do you have a goat then or sheep?" she went on. I had to admit that I did not. "A pig perhaps?" "No." "Nothing?" she asked, amazed. "Don't you have any grass where you live?" "Oh yes, there is grass" I said, thinking of the garden, and pleased to be able to lay claim to having something at last. "Then why don't you have a cow?" And so the exchange continues until he sets off with her advice ringing in his ears and his conscience.
The complex ethnography of the two areas he gets to know well is fascinating. He becomes entranced with the Saxon community of a village called Halma. From the 14th century, German-speaking communities had flourished in Transylvania. He meets elderly villagers, proud of their Lutheran church and German customs. The impact of the Nazis' war was dreadful, but the end of Communism marked an even more devastating change. When the newly unified Germany opened its borders to ethnic Germans, the vast majority deserted the villages of their forefathers to join the shiny new economic miracle.
Even more fascinating are the insights we gain into gypsy culture. Romania has by far the largest Roma community in Europe, and Blacker gets to know it far more intimately than he bargained for. He falls in love with the beautiful and elusive Natalia and later sets up home with her sister Marishka with whom he has a son, Constantin. The autobiographical aspects give the book a narrative impetus rare in travel books. We really want to know what happens to this unlikely little family, whose mesmerizing photos are included in the book along with other portraits and scenes.
At the same time that I was being enchanted by Along the Enchanted Way, with its description of visits to white witches and bizarre superstitions, a headline appeared in a national newspaper: "Romanian Witches Cast Spells on Government over Income Tax". Romanian witches had been made so angry by a decision to tax their earnings that they had hurled poisonous mandrake into the Danube River to cast spells on the president and government. The sometimes impossible-to-credit account that Blacker gives of his time in Romania is clearly the honest truth.
Over the years that the book covers, he experiences the changes, the coming of television and of modern aspirations. He does not rail against the changes, but simply describes them, which makes this book all the more moving and important as a record of a lost way of life.
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.