Wohlleben’s book was originally published in German in 2015 and then translated and published in English in 2016. The book attracted a lot of mainstream interest due to Wohlleben’s “wood wide web” description of trees communicating with each other and sharing nutrients. I was aware of this at the time and I must admit the way he presented it all put me off. But I’ve now read the book and that’s only a small part of the wide range of topics he covers.
Peter Wohlleben began his career as a forester for the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany but became disillusioned with the “big forestry” style of management and began managing a beechwood for the local council of Hummel. He published several successful books about forests, nature, and threats to the environment, before “The hidden life of trees”.
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I read “A wood of our own” by Julian Evans before I bought Century Wood, way back in 2007. I was already pretty sure I wanted to own a woodland, and Evans’ book helped confirm it. It’s become the book I compare other woodland owners’ books against, and I’ve looked through it again after reading and reviewing “A wood of one’s own” by Ruth Pavey.
Back in 2007 I had already read Evans’ book “Badgers, beeches, and blisters”, which is out of print but still available as a free PDF from woodlands.co.uk. That is very much a How To book with a lot of practical advice. At the same time as “A wood of our own”, I bought Chris Starr’s “Woodland management: a practical guide” and Ken Broad’s “Caring for small woods”. Both of these are more formal (very formal in Starr’s case: it’s a textbook) How To books in the vein of “Badgers, beeches, and blisters”, whereas “A wood of our own” is autobiographical. A first person account of Evans and his wife and her brother purchasing and managing the wood.
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“A wood of one’s own” by Ruth Pavey has been out for a couple of years but I’ve only got round to reading it this month. For me, it was a bit of curate’s egg. It’s well written (there are gushing reviews in the press) but the content was rather disappointing: the gardening correspondent of the local paper in Highgate and Hampstead buys a 4 acre wood in Somerset, and uses it for gardening. Maybe that is too harsh. It’s really an orchard after all, and Pavey has a lot of awareness of what is going to set people’s teeth on edge: planting garden flowers in woodland, for instance.
Pavey has family and childhood connections to Somerset, and so it was not entirely surprising that in 1999 she ended up buying her four acres there. Mixed scrub, orchard, some big trees, and lots of brambles and nettles.
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For several years rewilding has been one of the influences on how I manage Century Wood. It’s never been an entirely comfortable fit though, since “wild” is quite an extreme goal. I’ve contented myself with encouraging elements of wildness but now I think it would be more productive for me to talk about “renaturing”, and I imagine a spectrum with wildwood at one end and very controlled plantation forests at the other.
Rewilding started to enter the public consciousness in Britain about the time I bought Century Wood in 2008, and in 2013 George Monbiot’s book “Feral” gave it a lot of publicity and provided a popular manifesto. I was already thinking about ways to encourage large scale reforestation, and Monbiot’s book crystallized the way in which British uplands are kept bare by sheep, deer, and EU Common Agricultural Policy basic payments.
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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.
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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.
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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.