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.
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.
I’ve added a woodland book list to the Century Wood website. It ranges from conventional forestry management and the natural history of trees to American books about rural buildings and their archetypical “cabin in the woods”, and roughly corresponds to a real shelf in one of my own bookcases.
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.
Some books I pick up and march straight through in a quick campaign, forcing short or long engagements at every opportunity until the matter is concluded. Others I pick away at in a form of guerrilla warfare. Now I mostly read on a Kindle app, the temptation to neglect one book for another is greater too. George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been subject to my hit-and-run tactics since I started it last year, after the publicity surrounding the launch of Rewilding Britain in July. This month I devoted some proper time to it, and now I’ve finished it I thought it would be interesting to look at the book from the point of view of hutting.
“Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties” is a quite remarkable book from 1914. Daniel Carter Beard was one of the founders of scouting in America and wrote and illustrated the book based on his first-hand experience organising scout camps. It is packed full of sketch plans and practical details of structures that can be built in woodlands with nothing more than axes and knives – and an army of fearless, enthusiastic teenagers. The designs are also readily adaptable to those of us engaged in 21st century woodscraft, now armed with chainsaws. Some of the details of felling trees and handling heavy logs would also need updating to present-day ideas about safety and acceptable ways of working – not to mention planning issues when building the various designs of log cabin!
Since the book is out of copyright it has been reprinted by various publishers, including the good-quality reprint you can get from Amazon.