We’ve owned our patch of woodland now for six months, so I thought it was time I wrote something about it. When we tell people that we’ve bought a wood their reactions generally fall into two camps. The first are those who ‘get it’. They are genuinely interested by the idea and ask lots of questions. They want to visit the wood. They offer to help us with it. The second camp are bewildered by such a notion (one actually laughed in my face). What, they ask, would you want to do that for? This camp want to know if it can be built upon. We tell them, no. Some seem genuinely affronted by the idea, as if putting money into anything other than bricks and mortar, into extensions, new kitchens, patios and decking, were in some way radically subversive. Well, perhaps it is.
Our decision was not a financial one. It was not based on the likely increase in value. Yes, we hope to find ways of using woodland produce. In theory we needn’t ever buy firewood again. It is true that we have always liked to forage. We have already found numerous ways to cook nettles. In the autumn we will experience a chestnut and hazelnut bounty, and will hopefully find edible mushrooms. Sloe gin will be made in winter. In good weather we can camp in the wood, have a camp fire. These are some of the benefits of ownership. We are not naive enough though to think that this offers some odd, woodland root to self-sufficiency.
Why then? Why own a wood? The first thing to say is that this wasn’t a rational decision. Falling in love is not a decision of mind over heart. You do not consider the financial benefits and likely net profit of being in love. We saw some woodland advertised. Went to have a look, and that was that. As we entered what was to become our wood for that first time we were struck by the way everything beyond the wood seemed to fall away. Seen for the outside, from the road for instance, woods are dark impenetrable places. They flash past our side windows. We do not stop to enter them. They do not seem to belong to the open organised world of humans but speak of something darker, an unexplored territory, a zone we don’t wish to enter. Once you cross the threshold into that zone the perspective alters. Movement changes. You are forced to move with the wood, treading its ground and negotiating its understory with care. Light filters in. You begin to see in the woodland light, from the woodland’s perspective. The outside world, also filters in, where field edge meets woodland, or when an aeroplane passes overhead, but suddenly the wood is not longer a dark territory but is the centre of itself, the outside world with its houses and cars and innumerable hectares of roads becomes peripheral, insubstantial even.
By entering the wood we also began to question what we meant by a wild place. The wildness in most (if not all) English woodland is a tamed and managed one. Everywhere there are signs of centuries of this management; the old and overgrown coppice stools, the carefully maintained rides, the younger stands of trees in tidy rows. Shotgun shells littered the woodland floor, a sign that it had once been used for game keeping. And yet it is semi-natural, semi-wild, and on that first visit we noticed deer tracks and realised that the paths we followed belonged to badgers.
We had a picnic on the first visit, on the fallen trunk of a tree next to the field edge. Our young daughters found a very old oak which had previously been coppiced and then allowed to grow thick and gnarly. They built a fairy house in its hollows with flints, leaves, and twigs. They hugged the trunk of what I took to be an old beech. I was struck by how illiterate I was in the language of the wood. I struggled to name the trees and the other woodland plants. I had grown up in a village of hazel hedges and had spent much of my childhood playing in woods, and yet somehow that language of the natural world had been buried by three decades of study, work, and urban/suburban comfort. I felt this dormant knowledge begin to stir. When we left the wood we thought an hour or so had passed, but a check of our watches showed us that three and a half hours had passed. Another thing to learn; we were, in the wood, on woodland time, as if the slow growth of the trees had seeped into our senses and lodged there.
It’s easy to get caught up in the romance. There are, however, a great many doses of realism to contend with. The wood needs to be cared for, nurtured, and as brutal as it may seem, that involves cutting down trees. Thinning out the younger trees or introducing a coppice system will be important for ensuring the health and biodiversity of the wood. I have realised, with trepidation, that I will have to learn to use a chainsaw. A plan for the care of the wood needs to be made, and six months in we are only just getting a sense of what that might look like. The presence of deer means deer damage, and ticks! It has also taken six months to become aware of what is growing on our three and bit acre patch and of the diseases to watch for, and there are still vast gaps in our knowledge. Woodland ownership can be hard graft, but that is a pleasure in itself. A pleasure of coming to know a few acres on intimate terms, to observe that ground closely as it changes with the seasons. Through working in the wood you come to know it, become a part of it, and you quickly realise that despite the papers and transactions, a good small woodland owner must realise that at some level the wood really belongs to itself. To realise this is to realise the role of conservation. Perhaps there is something radically subversive in buying land not to build upon or for the sake of financial profit but in order to enjoy, nurture, improve and conserve what is already there, an idea that is antithetical to a society obsessed with the rise up the housing ladder and the growth and accumulation of capital assets.