Call of the wild

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Clawing a living from the unforgiving backwoods of Canada and a love of nature in Suffolk captivate Nicola Davies.

When I had a smallholding, and had animals, fences and land to attend to in all weathers, my relationship with nature was like the one I had with my dad: I loved and hated him, but I knew he was always in charge. So, I recognised the ambivalence Susanna Moodie expressed in Roughing It in the Bush, first published in London in 1852. Susanna was a middle-class girl with literary ambitions, but lack of a family fortune turned her and her husband into reluctant emigrants.

For seven years from 1832 they struggled to eke out an existence in the backwoods of eastern Canada. When her trial-by-wilderness was finally over, Susanna decided to write about her years in the bush.

In this Norton edition edited by Michael Peterman, there is historical context, and criticism by such luminaries as author Margaret Atwood if you want it, but Susanna's story stands well enough alone.

It's Laura Ingalls Wilder for grown ups: the crop failures, the outbreaks of disease, the bear attacks are familiar to anyone who's read the Little House books, but in Susanna's rather genteel prose, they take on a more chilling reality.

This love of the natural world shines in Wildwood too, in Roger Deakin's wonderfully luminous writing. Deakin who died last year, shortly after completing this book was a writer, broadcaster and filmmaker, but he wasn't only a spectator of the natural world. As the owner of an old Suffolk house and its surrounding fields and hedgerows, he had an intimate, interactive relationship with nature and specifically with trees.

There are so many insightful details in Wildwood. Deakin's power as a nature writer is in his ability to peel back the layers of experience and meaning in a single tiny moment: laying his cheek against the ground in a woodland near his home he suddenly perceives "the iceberg depths of the wood's root world".

That description, for me, contains not only a perfectly accurate evocation of the under-soil scene, but all the mysterious feelings I have about that hidden world. Deakin proves in every sentence his assertion that ecology and poetry have an "intimate kinship".

Nicola Davies is a writer and senior lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University. Her new book, Who's Eating You, is published by Walker Books on October 1

Roughing It in the Bush

Susanna Moodie

Edited by Michael Peterman

Norton Critical Editions pound;7.99

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

Roger Deakin

Penguin pound;20

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