What Did I Learn From Napoleon This Wood?

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The non-fiction book I finished this week was Wildwood by Roger Deakin. I remember purchasing this book through Audible back in May when I was desperately trying to use up credits so I could cancel my subscription. This was actually the same story behind me downloading Napoleon's biographic in the first place.

I'm a big fan of trees, whether it's the mulberry in my backyard or the towering redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, so the blurb of Wildwood grabbed my attention, indicating it would be full of interesting scientific and botanic non-fiction. I still remember reading Guns, Germs and Steel which taught me that broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and drumhead cabbage were all descendants of the original wild cabbage plant that grew only on the cliffs of the English coast and I thought that a whole audiobook of that kind of content would be captivating.

This was not the book I expected. It was the poetry quotes that were the first warning sign. Lyrical descriptions about wood, the feeling of wood, the jazz of driftwood, the fifth element. I like trees. Not as much as Roger Deakin likes trees. He really likes trees. There was a paragraph describing how being inside a fully wood building was so augmented by it's elemental nature that it made the taste of a single baked bean orgasmic. And a whole chapter about how satisfying it was to observe different types of moths in an English wood. I'm not judging this lifestyle. In fact, I was envious of how much time and resources Roger Deakin seemed to have available to travel and coppice and write and whittle.

The baked bean was just one example of the anecdotal rather than scientific nature of Wildwood and while it did contain a lot of interesting facts - such as the value of walnut tree burrs and the black market for the biggest of them, and how trees from cold climates make better flooring timber due to tighter grains - they were drowned out by the prep school reminiscing and the chapters about various wood-centric artists. Audiobooks are not the best medium for discussing that type of art.

And yet, perhaps it was Deakin (and the narrator's) passion for wood and woods that kept me listening, but over time the pattern of the book becomes clearer. Each chapter is an essay that starts from a seed - some aspect of wood and trees and how they shape someone's life - and often bloom into touching and interesting stories. The travels through the eastern bloc and visiting the walnut forests and the people living around them, and even tales of the Australian outback complete with handy tips on how to use crows to find your way to water (you just need to kill and salt a wallaby, then watch which direction they go after they eat the salty meat) were lovely, and sometimes fascinating although sometimes they did go on a bit. It really felt like Deakin was a man existing on a different plane; someone who understood trees and plants both scientifically as well as spiritually.

After I finished reading it I learned that he died of a brain tumour shortly after he finished writing Wildwood which was very sad because I'd just spent fourteen hours listening to his thoughts on wood, which ended on a short summary of the pollarding of an outdoor "room" of trees he'd been cultivating for twenty years, and clearly had hopes for maintaining and observing into the future. I don't know if it was done intentionally, but that last chapter was titled "Ash".

What did I learn from Roger Deakin this week? Trees are amazing, and they can bring people who are different together.


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