Woodscraft?

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.

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Visiting Walden Pond

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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Rides and deadwood

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.

At this time of year, areas like this in the wood are still very open and you can’t tell what is ride and what is just gaps between trees at first glance. Only by walking the route and looking up at the open view of the sky and down at the cleared ground can you tell. Fallen and overhanging branches start to blur this distinction. If the ride isn’t mowed or at least trampled by the time the nettles are back in high summer, 6ft high in places, it’s easy to get “lost” and beat a new path that leads you into a tangle.

Yesterday was also the day I said goodbye to this dead poplar that was standing next to the roadway through the wood. The plantation poplars are a non-native strain which get diseased and lose their upper branches. In the winter of 2014/5 this one lost the last of its branches, and began to be overstood by the surrounding hazel trees which are regenerating naturally. In June 2017 I noticed that it had sprouted these Dryad’s Saddle fungal fruiting bodies, and had therefore died.

Later in 2017 the Dryad’s Saddle had matured and withered a bit. I’ve kept an eye on the tree trunk because it was within falling distance of the road. This winter the stumps of the branches began to fall off and I decided to fell what’s left of it now, after checking for signs of birds nesting. It split up into several pieces as it came down, and raised a cloud of powdered wood when it hit the ground. You can see in the second picture how soft and decayed the trunk had become from the section through the stump.

Next time I’m going to be tackling an area where there’s a large poplar branch with a lot of side branches that has come down along the line of the ride and then had two years to be overwhelmed by brambles. I’ve been skirting further and further around it, and it will take a mix of a new hedgetrimmer and my chainsaw to pick it all apart and clear the original path of the ride.

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The cairn at Century Wood

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.

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“The Wood: the life and times of Cockshutt Wood” by John Lewis Stempel

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.

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Smallwoods, Issue 73, New Year 2019

The postman delivered the current edition of the Small Woods Association’s “Smallwoods” magazine today, for New Year 2019.

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.)

 

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Burnt oak trees at Dunham Massey

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.

These next six pictures are from two trees. The second large picture is a hole burnt right through the wall of the shell near ground level. In the fourth picture, the whole of the inside of the tree is charred. The bottom left and bottom right pictures are views up the charred hollows extending the full remaining height of each tree.

Naturally, there is a history of lightning strikes at Dunham Massey. John Boultbee painted “An oak tree struck by lightning in Dunham Park” in 1808. Other paintings of the deer park suggest it was denser than it is now, with something like a closed canopy of oak trees. In Boultbee’s painting there is not much evidence of burning, and instead the tree has just exploded when the lightning struck, leaving shards of pale wood strewn around. People are taking photos of very similar aftermaths around the world today.

So far, so plausible. But then it begins to break down. Another of the trees in the group looks just the same, but has no charring at all. Its hollow, rotted-out structure is the same, and it has a missing crown at the same height. That strongly suggests that the other trees were like this, and then set alight. It means that lightning can’t be explanation of the lost crowns, at least.

When I got home I had a look for anything online and the the National Trust website has an “ancient trees walk” at Dunham Massey which explains it:

Burnt, decayed, twisted, hollow, but still alive and healthy, the trees damaged in a past bracken fire show the tenacity of trees to survive.

The final three photos show another hollow but surviving oak in a different part of the deer park, and a big hollow branch on the ground. Finally a really cool den to the east of Island Pool.

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