Anne Frank found solace in the giant Chestnut tree that stood outside her home, while a Moroccan activist risked arrest to protect a precious stand of Cedar trees. And in Israel, to the outrage of Omer’s Mayor, the Bedouins are accused of cutting down thousands of trees on disputed lands.
Though they have spiritual significance to some and spell money to others, trees are critical to breathing our carbon emissions, and according to essayist Chip Ward, “sweat” the moisture that is necessary for agriculture. They prevent soil erosion and provide fuel and building materials. The numerous reasons we should protect remaining trees are hard to illustrate, unless you’re Ben Law. Clare Reddaway reveals what he knows.
The author of ‘The Woodland Year,’ Ben Law is something of a celebrity woodsman in Britain. He is particularly famous for his sustainable wooden house in the forest, the building of which was filmed for Channel Four’s ‘Grand Designs.’ I have never seen the programme, but I instantly warmed to Ben’s apple-cheeked wide smile, and his open, passionate and knowledgeable writing about his wood.
The book is divided into the months of the year. In each chapter Ben describes the work that takes place during that month. This could be coppicing the hazel, steam bending sweet chestnut for the crown of a yurt, felling larch for floor joists, or harvesting nuts and blackberries. He describes how the wood is managed productively as a sustainable woodland and how it provides an ecologically viable way of life. He also relishes the glory of nature as the year passes, and shares some mouthwatering recipes created out of foraged food.
Each chapter has a piece written by other woodsmen and women from all over the country. Rebecca Oaks contributes from the Lake District, Stewart Whitehead from Ceiriog Valley in Wales, and Anthony Waters from Cornwall. They each focus on their own areas of interest. Frankie Woodgate describes working her wood with heavy horses. Hugh Ross writes about making charcoal. Paul Morton tells how three years ago he was working in a jam factory; now he is earning his living from 38 acres of woodland, which he owns and manages.
It is not only the beauty of the photographs that brings this book to life. It is the intimacy of the writing and Ben Law’s extraordinary, wide-ranging knowledge about woods. The reader learns that King Alfred’s Cakes or cramp balls, black fungi that grow mainly on ash trees, are nature’s firelighters. Law describes coming across a badger’s set with debris piled outside after a spring clean, noting that badgers are clean animals. He lists the uses for each type of wood. Who would have guessed that alder makes the best clog soles, or that wood from the wild service tree is much in demand in France by musical instrument makers?
Snedding is the removal of side branches and the top of a felled tree, and those side branches are known as ‘brash.’ When berries are softened by frost they are ‘bletted.’ I reveled in the names of English wild flowers: Dog’s Mercury, Spurge, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Stitchwort. I might even be able to indentify them from the photographs. All of this speaks of a man who is steeped in his craft and that craft has its roots in ancient woodland lore that has been all but forgotten in modern Britain.
There was one activity that I particularly enjoyed. In March, Law inoculated logs with mushroom spawn. After ten years of trials, he has discovered that his most reliable inoculation has been the Japanese shiitake mushroom into sweet chestnut logs. He drilled holes in the logs with a specialist Japanese drill bit and then filled them with spawn-impregnated sawdust. The holes were sealed with wax and the logs stacked in the shade of the woods for the mushrooms to colonise. Sometimes the logs were ‘shocked’, by plunging them into water to stimulate growth. A few days later he would have a log full of shiitake to sell to the local gastropub. So that pile of rotting logs in the woods is in fact a woodsman’s log larder.
This is not a ‘how to’ book for a trainee woodsman. It is more of a lyrical call for readers to work more in harmony with nature, and to appreciate the resources that lie around them. As such it works. I, for one, will be walking in my local woods with my eyes newly attuned to my surroundings. I shall search out local charcoal made in local charcoal kilns. Although I think it’s unlikely that I will try Ben Law’s recipe for squirrel stew, I am waiting for the first frost to ‘blett’ the sloes so that I can pick them for sloe gin, and I’ve got my eye on my beech hedge for beech leaf noyeau (more gin).
Not all of us can live the life that Ben Law lives, but through this book we can get an idea of the importance of his work. He is leading a woodland renaissance in Britain, and reading about it is a tranquil pleasure.
THE WOODLAND YEAR By Ben Law
Published by Permanent Publications, The Sustainability Centre, East Meon, Hampshire, UK http://www.permanent-publications.co.uk/index.htm
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
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