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:
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’ve just watched the beautiful Episode 7 of the Woodlanders series of films. This episode is about Tinker’s Bubble in Somerset and how they do forestry without using fossil fuel: felling with axe and saw, extraction with horses, and a saw mill powered by a wood-burning steam engine.
The Woodlanders series is made by Costa Boutsikaris and is crowd funded. Please consider supporting his work if you like the film.
I had the opportunity to visit La Garenne in the Jura mountains of Switzerland earlier this year. The zoo takes in and treats hundreds of injured wild animals, with most released back into the Swiss countryside. It also participates in breeding and reintroduction programmes. The focus is on animals which are native to the region, and this includes lynx, wolves, and boar which were once native to Britain too. In the Jura mountains, all three are now present in the wild to varying degrees, either by deliberate reintroduction or after recolonising the region from refuges elsewhere.
In Britain, boar have already escaped back into the wild from farms, and there are rewilding groups working to reintroduce lynx in several parts of the UK and even wolves in Scotland. All three have implications, some very positive, for woodland and so it was fascinating to see them up close, in another landscape they are native to.
This first picture shows about half of the three hectare site, with the wolf enclosure in the centre.
The following pictures show wolves, lynx, bearded vultures, eagle owls, goats, and wild boar.
Finally here are three short videos of wolves and lynx:
I really love root plates. They’re the disc of earth, stones, and roots that you often see when a big tree falls over. They reveal something otherwise hidden: a snapshot of what was going on a bit underground, directly under the trunk itself. The most surprising thing is just how shallow they are. Twenty metres of substantial tree trunk laid on the ground but only a foot or two of substantial roots.
Root plates naturally have a mention in Oliver Rackham’s magisterial “Woodlands”:
“until 1987 few English people understood what a tree’s root system looked like; some thought roots went as nearly as far below ground as stems above it. As the great storms of 1987 and 1990 showed, most trees in England are shallow rooted. It may be argued that deep-rooted trees were never uprooted, but anyone digging holes in a wood seldom meet roots more than 3 feet (1 metre) down. A giant beech can have a root-plate only a few inched deep, much less than the diameter of the trunk.”
This month I took pictures of pine and birch root plates in the woods above Carbeth and in the Black Wood of Rannoch in Scotland.
First these pictures from a stand of trees near the top of the Carbeth hutting site. You can see a double root plate with two trunks and then a single root plate. The third picture shows how shallow the root plates are, and the final picture puts them in context: right on the edge of the wood by an area of marshy ground before the huts start.
These next four are from the Black Wood of Rannoch just to the south of the Cairngorms national park. I’m writing a separate blog post about the wood, as it’s an important survival from the ancient Caledonian forest, but for now, let’s just look at some birch root plates. It striking how similar they look despite pine and birch being completely different species.
Root plates are formed when trees are unstable and fall over. A storm can help this, especially one in summer when deciduous trees are in full leaf. Rackham explains that trees have a lot more roots than they need to draw water and nutrients, and the excess is there for stability. Trees that can grow fewer roots than they want are more at risk. So being up against a river bank, or a road, or other trees doesn’t help. Paradoxically, it is more often the trees inside a wood than on the edges that get blown over by the wind, especially if the wood has been planted with an artificially high density.
There are lots of videos of trees falling and root plates forming on YouTube. This compilation is “Trees falling in nature”, although mostly they’re in gardens or struggling to balance in the grass verge beside a pavement:
Old Copse is a 30 acre woodland in Sussex whose management since 2009 has been documented in an excellent blog by Sarah, one of its owners. In 2014 they built this Polish-style log cabin using Scots Pine trunks from the wood itself. I’m going to pick out some of the many interesting details about building the cabin, and link to her cabin posts and videos so you can dig deeper yourself.
Like many woodland owners, they wanted a shelter from bad weather when doing forestry work that would double up as a social space for themselves and visitors. In 2013 they obtained approval from the local council to build a cabin under their forestry permitted development rights. They wanted something sturdy and secure, and settled on a round wood design which is common in North America and Eastern Europe. Although they could find some Scottish and Welsh companies building them in the UK, they couldn’t find anyone nearer to Sussex and hit on the idea of looking for contacts through local Polish clubs, and were quickly put in contact with a group of log cabin builders from Poland itself who had the experience already. By February 2014 the 45 Scots Pine trees were felled and logged, and work had begun on removing the bark.
By mid and late March 2014 the logs were notched and put in place to make the walls, and the roof frame was up.
April 2014 saw the building of the roof itself. They had considered several options, including a green roof with self-seeded plants in soil, wooden shingles or “tiles”, birch poles over a waterproof membrane, and finally a “tin roof” of sheets of dark green corrugated iron. They went with this last option because they felt that it would be more in keeping with the look of a forestry building, especially once weathered, and also the least risky design. This video shows the state of the cabin in April, and it’s location in the wider wood environment:
Later in April 2014, Sarah made two posts about the process of “chinking” the gaps between the logs with little rolls of pine bark fibres to keep the wind out. This seems to have taken a long time, and she does mention some of the alternatives used elsewhere. The first post also has a picture of cast iron wood burning stove they installed and this video shows the process of chinking in more detail:
By May 2014 the stove and chimney were installed and working, and in June 2014 they were sorting out the odds and ends that make a cabin or hut more comfortable, including bits of furniture, shelve, and kitchenware. They held an official opening ceremony for friends and family, which is also shown in this video:
They seem to have got a lot out of the whole process of planning and participating in the build, and Sarah explains how having the log cabin has changed their relationship with the wood:
Already the cabin has given an idea of how managing Old Copse will be easier. BC (Before Cabin) each visit was a matter of arriving, un-packing, working like billyo, and then packing up and leaving – in a hurry if it’s started to pour down Either that, or having to stand under a dismal tarpaulin waiting for the rain to stop.
We appreciate the difference in pace now – we are visiting more, staying longer, getting a lot more essential work done, but also enjoying ‘cabin life’ – taking time to sit out on the deck with a sun downer, while listening to and seeing wild-life in the wood and on the pond.
The team of Polish log cabin builders are now set up to do more builds in the UK, and have a comprehensive website at www.sussexlogcabins.com.