Yesterday I caught the Tolkien biopic which is right at the end of its release in cinemas. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s set against the latter part of his childhood, time at university, and service in the trenches of the First World War. The main themes are his relationships with his similarly-gifted school friends (the other three boys of the “TCBS” club) and his difficult pursuit of the love of his life, Edith, but there are secondary themes of his fascination with language and hints at the importance he attached to trees. It reminded me of how he influenced some of my own early treeish thoughts.
This week I came across a series of YouTube videos about off grid living by Maximus Ironthumper (he does reenactments too, including making Viking items!) He covers a lot of topics relevant to people with woodland cabins, including generating electricity, sanitation, and managing firewood.
This is an introductory video which describes his set up:
For the rest of his off grid videos, he has provided a playlist.
This week I spent a couple of hours in the early morning at Bagley Wood near Oxford. The wood has been owned by St. John’s College since the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries, and before that it was owned by Abingdon Abbey since 955 AD. It is managed as a nature reserve, for research, and with some areas as plantations. I took a lot of phone camera pictures, as I didn’t have my DSLR with me. I saw a few deer, Bluebells, log stacks, standing dead trees, Leyland Cypress, Oak, Hazel, Larch, and Scots Pine. There were quite a few areas of planting with tree shelters, including one with Oak that I photographed as shown below.
A reader asked me about the “woodscraft” category that some posts on the Centurywood.uk blog have. Using modern computers to communicate forces us into a world of hashtags, keywords, and categories, so that things can be sorted and found. But it turns out that this word and related terms have a surprisingly long history.
First, I should say what I mean by “woodscraft”. The About Page says it’s “living out in the woods, managing them, and making use of their produce”. The craft of woods if you like. And that’s small woodlands rather big forestry as well.
In 1845 Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts and started the process which led to “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” in 1854. This book has gone on to become a classic of American literature, held up by advocates of self-reliance, resistance to the power of the State, naturalism, and conservation; and studied by generations of school children. Even in the UK, it’s often quoted, with its mixture of philosophy and the outline of Thoreau’s efforts to lead a self-reliant life from the land around his cabin. For me, over the last ten years it’s become an increasingly valuable account of living and working in woodland, of learning and practicing woodscraft, and becoming the amateur naturalist of your own environment.
One of Century Wood’s best features is the kilometre of rides that I established in the first few years. I really neglected them in 2017/18 though, largely due to extending the central Glade and putting up the Drying Barn. But this spring I’m doing ride maintenance before it gets much harder in summer. In the wood, a big part of this work is with dead and dying branches from the plantation poplar trees which have fallen across the rides, and there is also some unstable standing deadwood here and there which isn’t ok beside the rides.
This first photo shows part of one of the rides from yesterday after clearing. You can see where I cut off some small overhanging branches, and on the extreme left where I dragged them to the ride side. Unless branches are thick enough to cut up for firewood, I always drag them to the side or off into the undergrowth to rot down over time and provide cover and habitats.
This weekend saw my 300th visit to Century Wood in the eleven years I’ve owned it. I’ve decided to mark that milestone with this cairn of rocks in a small clearing off one of the rides that’s well shaded and not overgrown in summer. The cairn starts with one rock for each visit I’ve made so far, and I intend to add a stone each time I visit from now on. I often pick up interesting rocks and pebbles when I visit places, and now I have somewhere to put them! It’s also something visitors can do.
This idea was prompted by the cairn at Thoreau’s cabin in the woods at Walden Pond which I visited myself a week ago. That cairn was started in 1872 by Thoreau’s friends a few years after his death as something that would fit better into the woodland environment than an engraved stone. We do also have lots of cairns on the tops of mountains in the UK. So why not in woods too.
I was very impressed by “The Wood: the life and times of Cockshutt Wood”. John Lewis-Stempel rented a farm in Herefordshire and had the wood for four years. The book is written as a diary of the last of those four years. Some people have made very snippy comments that he was playing at farming and forestry, but that misses the point that the emphasis of the book is on the trees and wildlife of the wood, and how they change during the seasons.
It starts in December with the wood entering its winter quiet time, and goes through the seasons until his final farewell in November. I do find diary (and letter) format books tricky to adjust to but it worked well here given the seasonal frame and his many short visits to the wood.
Some of the diary entries are little more than notes or lists. Others are little essays. A typical one is that he shoots a pheasant on the 8th of December for Christmas lunch, and then tells a short anecdote about poaching and the number of pheasants released each year. Many anecdotes were the kind of thing curiosity would lead you to via Google or Wikipedia. The kind of thing people now check on their phones and then blurt out “Just looked it up. Did you know that such and such is actually something or other!!!” There are also poems, block quotes, and recipes.
As part of his farm, he keeps pigs, cows and sheep in the wood, grazing them and using them to suppress the brambles which originally smothered the woodland floor. Some of the wood is also coppiced, and he harvests mushrooms, elder flowers, sweet chestnut and the odd pheasant and woodpigeon. He also shoots American grey squirrels.
Frankly, I think this is the best book at capturing the feeling of having a wood that I’ve come across.
As well as the usual news roundup, letters, and book reviews, the feature articles include:
- Carbon capture in wood
- Identifying signs of mammals
- The first in a series of articles on woodland planning permission and other controls
- Buying and selling woods
- 100 years of the Forestry Commission
- The Oliver Rackham archive of books and papers
- Weaving a willow basket
- One member’s wood, planted by them in 1995
- Blue tits in woodland
I was really pleased to see the planning article, which again brought up some of the themes of the Long Tail essay. I’m looking forward to the next article in the series, on the details of the planning system (the bare bones of which are in the Planning Law page on this site.)
To the southeast of Island Pool in the deer park of Dunham Massey in Cheshire is a group of burnt oaks. I came across them today on a New Year’s Day walk. At first I thought they might be due to a lightning strike, but further digging reveals they are the result of a bracken fire.
This first picture sets the scene of the small group of oaks, which have lost their tops at about the same height. Some have started to regrow crowns, but others are dead. You might be able to convince yourself that they got a fork each from a large lightning discharge, destroying their tops and (on closer inspection) leaving them as charred hollows. You can see lots of charring in the second picture. Lightning can also travel through the bark, burning and shattering as it goes.