“Leave No Trace” and “Winter’s Bone”

I watched the film “Winter’s Bone” from 2010 last night and then went to see “Leave No Trace”, both directed by Debra Granik. The two films are set in American forests and show non-conventional families finding ways to survive.

“Winter’s Bone” has Jennifer Lawrence’s 17 year old character trying to keep her sisters and virtually speechless mother in their cabin in their woodland. Most of the film is her search for her father who has put the cabin and land up as bail. Now he has disappeared, they face eviction. The film briefly touches on learning to hunt and dress kills, when to fell hundred year old trees, and rural isolation when you don’t have your own transport. It’s not a stereotype “hillbilly” film, but it does tick a lot of the boxes. Neighbours butcher a  deer carcass hanging by their barn and lots of people have banjos. I was waiting for moonshine to appear but it’s the 21st century so they’re cooking crystal meth instead. Mark Kermode’s DVD review.

Eight years later , her “Leave No Trace” has a father and 13 year old daughter living in the forest itself. They have semi permanent camps, make their own fire but fall back to gas bottles when they have to, read books a lot, and make occasional trips in Portland, Oregon to buy provisions they can’t source themselves. Eventually they get caught and the to and fro of being in and out of “civilisation” is leads them to question what they each want: living a farming community? An isolated cabin in the forest? Or a trailer park community not unlike “Winter’s Bone”? Mark Kermode’s review has more and you might still be able to catch it in the cinema.

 

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Five days at the wood

Last week I spent five days at Century Wood, living in the log cabin and working on the new drying barn. We’ve stayed at the wood for a weekend at a time before, but this is my longest stay and didn’t involve any breaks: I didn’t even climb the gate and walk the rides shared with my neighbours during my stay. It was quite an experience.

The drying barn is a simple structure, designed to take a lightweight corrugated roof. You can see part of the frame in this picture. I’ve been peering at similar wooden framed buildings for the last few years with the barn in mind, and it’s now all come together and (partially) completed in the now extended Glade at the centre of the wood. It was hot and sunny every day, and so I got as much done as possible between about 7:30am and 10am and after 5pm, when the sun was below the tops of the trees.

The log cabin has a brick wood stove, but the weather was so warm I just cooked on a camping gas stove (which is much more controllable too, to be honest.) This is the first night, with burgers on the gas and a biscuit tin lid as an improvised plate – the one thing I forgot.

The wood has poor phone reception, and I deliberately wanted to avoid the intrusion of modern digital technology. So all I had to pass the evenings were books and a radio. I’ve blogged in the past about how TV feels like an unwelcome guest in the cabin compared to radio. I’ve not been able to find a more convenient way of getting radio listings on paper than a copy of the Radio Times (appropriately enough), so Ross Poldark is peering over the edge of the frying pan. I do have a set up with solar panels and a 12V lead-acid battery to power the radio (and recharge my phone), so I could keep going without using lots of single use batteries. For light in the evening I used a camping gas lantern hung from a ceiling rafter on a chain.

I brought three books: Thoreau’s “Walden“, “Cabin Porn“, and Rebecca Oaks’ new book “Making charcoal and biochar“. Walden got most of my reading attention, and I settled down with it and a bottle of cider on a couple of nights. I’m always struck by the completeness of the book’s vision. Thoreau describes how he set out building his hut in the woods by Walden Pond, growing (some of) his food, occupying his free time with books and writing, meeting visitors, and his efforts as an amateur naturalist to understand his surroundings.

During the overgrown summers I’m used to seeing fewer animals than in the bare winters. Earlier this year I saw foxes and hares, but by June I usually just see the buzzards circling overhead or patrolling the rides, and hear the song birds and the hoarse crowing of the pheasants. There are toads, and of course lots of insects, and here I saw a newt in the wood for the first time.

During the five days I had time to walk around and think about what I’ve done and how the wood has changed over the years.

The first picture shows a hazel tree I planted as a single cut branch pushed into the ground in 2009.

As well as not crossing the boundary for five days, I only saw one other person: on the fourth day I had a very brief conversation across the fence with a guy working on the boundary of one of the adjacent fields. That was a few minutes after taking this last picture over the fields from behind my deer fencing.

When I planned my stay, I wanted to know if I could last that long, without having to run to the shops for something, without getting bored, and without access to the technology that we’re now so dependent on. I needn’t have worried. With more food and above all more water, I could have stayed a lot longer than the planned five days.

As the end approached, I began to think how I would feel returning to “civilisation”. Would it affect me? Or would it be no different to returning from a holiday? When I eventually left, seeing people in ones and twos by the roadside didn’t seem strange. But when I got to a motorway services, even though it was quiet by normal standards, I did feel a bit overwhelmed – especially by the bold signs and product labels. There was just so much “stuff” after spending the best part of a week with trees, timber, and familiar things I had brought with me from home.  After having something to eat and drink, I felt used to all the trappings of modern life again and back to normal. But perhaps I should say “ordinary” rather than “normal”.

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Cuckoo at Century Wood

A short video of bird song at the start of May, including a cuckoo.

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The Long Tail in Smallwoods, Spring 2018

An expanded version of my post from January, The Long Tail of Forestry, has just appeared in the Small Woods Association’s “Smallwoods” magazine! (Spring 2018 edition)

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Woodland management in France

Earlier this week I revisited a woodland at the foot of the Jura mountains in France that I also photographed in mid February before the snow returned. I was able to take some before and after pictures of small trees marked for felling by the French Office National des Forets, and then felled, and also see how property boundaries are marked.

The contrast between the two visits is striking. Warm and sunny in February, but cold, overcast and snowy in March. The wood is mostly oak, with patches of Scots Pine, and hazel trees here and there. It’s very open at ground level, one of the hints that it is managed.

On my second visit, guys from the Office had signs up and were felling small trees beside a track alongside a farmer’s field at the woodland edge.

These two pictures show some of these trees marked up with spray paint and then felled. The brash has been placed over some of the stumps to protect the regrowth from deer.

When you walk deeper into the wood, you cross banks and ditches which help mark out the boundaries of the “parcelles cadastrales” into which the French countryside is divided, for the purposes of land ownership or rights to collect the produce of the land like wood.

Occasionally there are also marker stones like this, which are much easier to spot in the snow. There’s another one at the bottom end of the ditch on the right, highlighted with orange spray paint.

This photo shows more orange boundary markings sprayed onto stones and trees. It’s at a point where there is a dog leg in the ditch, which is indicated on the tree trunk by spray paint. You can just make out the line of the ditch from the splashes of orange colour. I’m expecting to see activity in this area now that it has been marked out.

Snow changes the character of the ground. It hides some features, but makes others easier to see. In this last picture, you can see a small root plate and due to the snow, the soil gradually coming off the roots can clearly be seen whereas normally it would be lost on the ground.

I wasn’t able to photograph my last observation of the March trip: I startled a group of half a dozen deer who bounded off before I could get a photo of them.

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Extending the Glade

The boundary of the Glade at the centre of the wood has been fixed since I cleared it nine years ago, but yesterday I started extending the area beside the Log Cabin to make room for a shed for storage and wood drying. This “drying barn” has been an off and on project for a few years, and three years ago I felled the poplars which could drop branches or fall on the eventual footprint of the barn. Some of the clearing work yesterday was to cut up some of these poplars and use them to edge the extended Glade boundary.

You can see the new edge on the first of these pictures I took during the day. The second picture shows a cut I made through one of the poplar trunks that was felled three years ago. You can see the brown, black, and orange staining from fungi growing within the wood and starting to break it down. The final photo shows fungal caps growing in a sheltered corner where one trunk crossed over another .

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Natural regeneration: Nature’s grassroots rebellion

There’s a rebellion going on in Britain. All around us. The resistance wins some battles and loses others. It has fought us since we first began to clear woodlands and create fields thousands of years ago. Its aim is reforestation with native trees, its method is natural regeneration, and in more and more places it is winning – increasingly with our help.

Often when trees are felled, worried people want to be reassured that the land will be replanted. People talk as if trees are like a field crop that has to be replanted after harvesting, to avoid leaving the treeless earth bare. Tree planting has an important place, but it must remembered that in most places it accelerates the reestablishment of native woodland, or guides what species will be present. It is not the fundamental and necessary way in which we find ourselves with a woodland. Ask yourself: why would native trees have to rely on human planting?

The fundamental way woodland reestablishes itself is natural regeneration. Trees grow from seeds already waiting in the ground; or brought there by birds and animals; or by undead, overlooked stumps and hedge trees reasserting themselves and breeding a new generation of rebels to lead a local revolution. We can interfere with this process with scythe, brush cutter, and mower. We can delegate the job to flocks of sheep. We can let unchecked populations of deer, rabbits, and grey squirrels put down the insurrection. But the trees keep trying and more and more of us are finding ways to help them.

One of the pioneers of rewilding and reforestation is Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of “Trees for Life” in the Highlands of Scotland. In George Monbiot’s “Feral”, he meets Alan and sees the now inspirational landscape in Glen Affric:

Glen Affric is one of the few parts of Britain in which the work of the Forestry Commission has, from the beginning, been largely benign. Since a sawmill was built in the valley in 1750, the old trees had been under siege, while the sheep grazing beneath them prevented almost all recruitment. The commission bought most of the glen in 1951, and, neglecting its customary duties, decided to preserve it rather than to wreck it. In the 1960s a young forester persuaded his bosses to let him fence 800 hectares of the glen, arguing, against the received wisdom of the time, that the trees could regenerate without being planted. The results were spectacular, an unequivocal rejoinder to those who said it was impossible. We could see them on the brae on the far side of the loch: stockades of pines a few decades old, their spiky profile broken in some places by the great humps of older trees. This experiment was one of the factors that had inspired Alan to found Trees for Life.

An hour’s drive north of Glen Affric is Glen Strathfarrar, and Alan took this striking photo there of forest regenerating naturally, which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce from his blog post. There’s a deer fence in the middle. To the left, trees are coming back naturally with deer excluded. To the right, the trees are scarce and the deer are free to browse any saplings that emerge.

You can’t see the deer in a photo like this, but without their natural predators like lynx and wolves their effect on the landscape is huge. It would be easy to look at a hillside like the one on the right and assume trees can’t grow, if you hadn’t seen what’s flourishing on the left. This emerging wood in Glen Strathfarrar is between about 150m and 250m above sea level, and as we can see this isn’t too high for natural regeneration. (For reference, there are birch woods in Norway at altitudes higher than the summit of Ben Nevis.)

Nature’s rebellion benefits the reestablishment of the forest cover we once had, but it’s increasingly being recognised that increased tree cover could benefit us too. Not just visually and emotionally. Perhaps even financially, and not just with things like tourism. Further south again is Loch Eilt, with this barren hillside at about 50m to 100m that’s been in the news this week. This landslide poured mud and rocks onto the West Highland Line and derailed the first train to come along, blocking the line for days and costing money for Network Rail and the people who finance it (principally taxpayers.)

There are trees in the landscape, including that small wood just to the right of the train. But there could be a lot more, and one of their benefits is to stabilise hillsides and protect against erosion, both the gradual carriage of soil down to rivers and off towards the sea and more dramatic erosion events like this.

With Brexit coming and our eventual withdrawal from the EU Common Agricultural Policy, there’s a debate about how these benefits can be recognised, with concepts like “natural capital” and “environmental services”, and proposals to dramatically increase tree planting. But for now the CAP payments still provide incentives to land owners to keep these barren treeless landscapes. Various euphemisms are used to refer to the natural progression from grassland up to woodland via scrub and pioneer tree species, but they implicitly and unintentionally recognise that the trees’ insurgency will succeed unless checked. As we reconfigure rural policy and support, it mustn’t be assumed that all trees have to be planted. If deer numbers were controlled and sheep removed, woodland could regenerate itself over huge areas without having to wait its turn to be planted.

Nature’s rebellion isn’t just against the moorland landscapes maintained by sheep and deer. Oliver Rackham’s magisterial “Woodlands” describes Shrawley Wood in chapter 19, where the Forestry Commission attempted to replace native lime trees with a conifer plantation:

Shrawley Wood, Worcestershire, is probably the biggest limewood in England. Most of it is nearly solid lime (including one of the tallest native trees in the kingdom). … In the 1530s it had been a wood with common-rights of woodcutting, divided into ten named coppices. …  Shrawley Wood fell into the hands of the Forestry Commission and was given the usual treatment. But Agent Orange here met its match. By 1985 Shrawley was back to being a magnificent limewood, and one had to look carefully for miserable remains of conifers.

I’m seeing the start of something similar at Century Wood, which is a 1980s hybrid poplar plantation, with natural regeneration of hazel plus some ash and oak, and then a few naturalised species like sycamore and horse chestnut. These non-native poplars are susceptible to cankers, and shed their upper branches. Some of the resulting stags are dying, leaving standing deadwood trunks a few metres high. Some of the still living stags are even overstood by the highest branches of the hazel. Even if I wasn’t gradually removing the poplars, they will be gone within a few decades, and the native (and naturalised) species will have won their rebellion.

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