I remember the first time I went into the woods. I went in and came out changed. The date was 21st December 2003 and the place was Short Wood, just outside of Oundle in Northamptonshire.
I didn’t go in alone. I went with a group of volunteers from the Wildlife Trust. We went to coppice hazel poles. We drove there in the morning from Northampton in a land rover. It rained and I remember initially not looking forward to a day’s work in the sodding wet.
A red kite flew over as we unloaded the gear and entered the woods. It was the shortest day of the year: midwinter. The sky was grey and the light thin. I have of course been in woods before, but only as a tourist or daytripper. There is something very different about going into the woods to work. The woods suddenly become something much more than merely pretty; they become necessary.
Charles Eisenstein once said that you cannot have community unless people need one another. In the same way, I would assert that one cannot really appreciate nature, an ecosystem, the woods until one has felt reliance upon it in some way. Through direct reliance upon an ecosystem, we also develop respect for the species that are part of it.
What is an oak tree to a dog walker? It may be admired for it’s beauty, it’s colours and fairytale-like forms by someone walking their spaniels on a Sunday afternoon. They might even develop an intellectual appreciation of oak trees if they read about their history and ecology. But how does this experience compare to that of a woodcutter? Someone who must humbly square up to a mighty oak grasping just a few mere hand tools. A craftsperson who, in order to live, must approach an unavoidably impressive individual, a towering monster, with the intention of taking it down.
When one is reliant on nature in such a tangible way, when one must truly meet it and take from it what one needs to live, one senses it’s true might and power. This is what I felt for the first time that day. In all healthy relationships, there must be a balance of power. A sense of “you need me and I need you”. This stability and mutual respect can only really be maintained through a certain degree of fear on both sides. An anxiety that the other party could retract their co-operation or love, depriving you of what you need.
In our abstraction away from natural environments, we humans in the post-industrial world have forgotten how to fear nature. By that I mean relate to nature in a healthy way. Of course, we still fear nature, but in a less wholesome manner. Our fear is a prissy, neurotic and cowardly fear that results in brutality and ecocide. Our fear is played out in a post-manual reality. A reality of best before dates, microfibre cloths and disposable latex gloves. One where we would rather sculpt our bodies in hygienic, temperature controlled gyms than get our hands mucky outside. We shy away from interacting with nature and the risks associated with it. We outsource direct interactions to faceless corporations who anonymously trash ecosystems at our bidding, leading to brutality and ecocide.
But nature actually needs us. We are a keystone species, after all. That is a species who affects all others in an ecosystem. We (used to at least) manage, maintain and truly be a benign part of diverse habitats, including coppice woodlands like Short Wood. But in our crazed hunger for capital, we now only really exploit nature. The balance of power is all out. We mine nature for all she is worth and more. Like an abusive spouse who batters their partner, but still expects everything from her; we do all the taking and nature all the giving.
We abuse nature, but she can and will eventually abandon us. We should be afraid of that. We need to be scared in order to enjoy a healthy relationship with nature. I felt fear of the woods that day. A real sense that it could hurt me. I might gash open my arm with a bow saw. A falling branch might knock me out or break a limb. A thorn in the undergrowth could pierce my skin and cause an infection. This was the woods as they really are. The woods as they always have been for thousands of years and to countless generations of people before me. A place of risk and necessity.
This heightened state caused me to become more alert to my surroundings as I worked. I noticed the wind blowing through the bare branches above me as I sawed and chopped. The screech of a jay. Long-tailed tits twittering, blue tits nattering. But above all I noticed the strange and steady tempo of this world outside of my own mind. It’s barely perceptible consistency, to which there is no beat. Only a careful unfolding marked by the passing of night and day, and the changing of seasons.
Being in that strange world is so different to the hectic claustrophobia of normal life. Sitting in the woods without a ticking clock. Just sitting, eating a cheese sandwich with my back to an oak tree that might have started it’s life five, ten or fifteen generations before me. That is a feeling one doesn’t forget too easily. It is a feeling of balance and humility; of “I need you and you need me”. It is a feeling I had yearned for for many years and which I still need now.
Everyone else felt it that day too, I think. We talked about about the ancient practice of coppicing, of its benefit to biodiversity. We talked about the techniques passed down from generation to generation. We covered the coppice stools with brash because deer apparently don’t like putting their feet through masses of twigs to eat the new shoots in spring. We talked about the winter solstice and paganism, of the Saxon graveyard in another Northamptonshire wood, Everdon Stubbs.
The dogs ran through the forest as a brash fire sizzled in the rain. Our voices and laughter rang through the trees, as our ancestors’ might have done as they worked. We talked about cooking roadkill on a spade and about all of the different things one could make from coppiced materials: furniture, tools, charcoal and firewood. We drank coffee and noticed the dark green ivy against grey bark.
My arm ached terribly on the way home. I was dog-tired, but in order to get to sleep that night, had to take painkillers to ease the muscle pain. I might have been scared off woodland work for the rest of my life. Instead it changed my life forever and for the better. That day I met the woods as a whole human being. I took nature by the hand and greeted her with respect and humility. I took some of her limbs and she hurt mine in return. It was almost as if the feeling, the respect, was mutual.