Author: Roger Deakin
Finished on: 22 November 2015
Where did I get this book: Borrowed from a colleague at work
This has been my dip in and out of (pun intended) read-at-home book for a while now. Both because it is a well-loved copy belonging to a work colleague and I didn’t want to take it out and about and trash it, and also because it works very well read as discrete episodes. Deakin’s writing has an almost hypnotic quality to it, and I find him profoundly relaxing to read, so it’s lovely to pick up and read a chapter at the end of stressful day.
However, reflecting on the way this book makes me feel has been less relaxing. I celebrated my 38th birthday whilst reading this book. And 38 is feeling a little bit old to me right now.
In this book, Deakin describes his journey across Britain wild swimming in places meaningful to him for a variety of reasons. And when I emerged from a session of reading it, as well as being relaxed, I was also jealous. Deakin makes me feel inspired, but also at times something bordering on inadequate; he is so right in his place in the world. I wish that I spent more of my time outdoors, and writing, and writing about being outdoors – and this accompanied by a birthday that suddenly felt like it was taking me speedily towards middle age, resulted in something that could perhaps be described as a mid-life crisis.
I don’t want a Ferrari; I don’t want to sleep with my secretary. To prove to myself, and to the world, that I am still alive, I want to spend long hours swimming outside in freezing cold water of sometimes dubious cleanliness.
I don’t of course. I’m not even that keen on wild swimming. But it is the impression of a person being entirely themself, and doing exactly what they should be doing, as well as his amazing affinity with the landscapes and wildlife that surrounds him, that I am jealous of.
I remember when I read Deakin’s Wildwood a couple of years ago (and spending time in woodlands is much more my cup of tea than swimming outside) it absolutely astonished me. I was new to the nature writing genre, and to be honest I had thought it might be a bit boring. I didn’t expect to find it such an all-encompassing experience, so life affirming, or so profound. Wildwood was everything that I had hoped Walden would be before I read that. First introduced to Thoreau by a hero of my teenage years, John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, it contains some of my favourite quotes from any book:
I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived
The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it
My greatest skill in life has been to want but little
I could go on. Brilliant. But oh my word, rarely has a book been so much less than the sum of its parts. I think it ranks number one in my all time disappointing reads list (which I am, of course, yet to compile). Partly, no doubt, because of high expectations. But mostly because Thoreau spends so much time talking about what is wrong with the lives that other people less enlightened, and generally inferior in every way, lead. Much more that he does talking about why he finds his own life to be fulfilling. He looks down his nose and casts judgement on the rest of the world for the majority of the book. Which is not only annoying, but smacks of protesting too much.
So, Thoreau: big let down.
(Am I looking down my nose and casting judgement on him? I don’t know. But it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting or hoping for).
And then I discover this obscure (to me) and eccentric English writer – who likes sleeping outside, describing the sound of the rain and the 58 different species of moths he encounters on a night in the woods with his friends – and he is everything Thoreau wasn’t. Deakin isn’t interested in judging others. He enjoys human contact, and being sociable with a range of friends that accompany him on his adventures. And he listens to, and learns from, those around him. But when he journeys alone into the countryside, he is so immersed in the experiences that it wouldn’t occur to him to waste time and energy thinking about being anywhere else but right there. His enthusiasm knows no bounds. This is a man truly happy, and at one with the world.
The sleek, black water tasted fresh and peaty as I leant into the shuddering current with each new stroke in the deep, high-sided cauldron. It brimmed over a slender lip of rock into a second waterfall that in turn sent others dashing down the steep ravine, winding darkly out of sight towards Ingleton, echoing through the lichened oaks. I felt acutely alone, not so much lonely as a rank outsider to this adventurous place, one of the ‘offcumden’, as Ingelton people say; literally ‘people who have come from afar’.
And as for me and my mid-life crisis… I think the important thing is to keep asking the questions isn’t it? Life is hectic; life is full. And I can’t claim to be feeling as right with every aspect of it as Deakin is with the water, and the woods, and the writing. But that is why books like this are important. In considering a life of wild swimming, and discovering a writer that resonates with me as Deakin does, I am prompted to strive for a better and happier balance. The truth is, my life has more in common with Deakin’s than it does differences – and the reason why I don’t spend even more time outdoors or more time writing is because I am doing other things that I choose to do; and I reaffirm those choices, because they are things that also make me happy. The important thing is asking these questions of myself.
And by making me pine for the life he leads within these pages, Deakin has given me a shove in the right direction. Keep these books coming – a wonderful life described in beautiful, and completely transporting, detail.
By appreciating, and learning from, the worlds described in the books I read. This is how I know I have lived, Thoreau.
I swam straight for the middle, heading for a wooded island. It felt fine. The water was green and clear. I wore goggles and gazed into the translucent sunlit mist of millions of microscopic creatures and algae, with here and there a patch of slender ribbon weed reaching up for the ceiling of the lake like an Indian rope trick. I soon fell into the trance of rhythm, that fish-like feeling that can take you a long way before you’ve noticed it. You lean into the water and feel its even gentleness lifting you as you steal through the surface. The secret is to respect it but never fear it, so you can relax and sense the molecules moving around you as you swim.