We don’t often go out to smart do’s these days – we seem to spend more time in our mucky clothes working at the woods. But we did go out last Friday and it was a very enjoyable evening for the retirement of a former colleague. Naturally we got to discussing the woods, and were asked some interesting questions.
It seemed that there was a general assumption that we owned the woods as “Lords of the Manor” and employed people to work there for us. “Who do you get to do the work for you?” was a question asked more than once. When we were talking about planting 4000 trees, one listener commented “Oh, well I suppose you can get a machine to do that for you?” to which we replied “Yes, it is called the Mark One Spade”.
These misconceptions got me thinking. We love working at the woods, but why? And why do people think that woods are something you get other people to look after for you? It seems to me that many people have lost the connection with the natural world that comes from being intimately involved with it, and working closely with it. The beauty of working in the woods yourself is the great feeling you get for the place. You get to know not just each tree, but the feeling of each part of the woods – the microclimate, the subtle changes in the flora and fauna, the small signs left behind by mammals and birds passing through. If you do your own coppicing work, you can stand and think about the trees – which ones will be left to become standards, how can you best cut the trees to let in light.
If you paid contractors to do the work, you would get trees cut down competently (maybe even more competently than if you did it). But you would not learn because you would not be at the sharp end of the operations. And they would not learn because they would not come back to see the consequences of their work.
More than that, it is immensely satisfying to see the fruits of your labour. If you don’t do the work, you don’t sit and eat your sandwich on a newly-felled log, and watch the little vole scurrying about the new brash pile, or see the robin checking out availability of food on the disturbed ground. You don’t feel the change in the microclimate, or perceive the difference in the behaviour of the birds and other creatures around you. If you take responsibility for doing the work, you take responsibility for the consequences, and you become much more connected with the land, the plants, the trees, the birds and the other creatures around you.
To me, nature is not a theme park. It is not something created by others for you to walk around and enjoy in a sanitised fashion. But nature is increasingly presented as a theme park. Nature is a car park, a visitor centre, a multimedia slide show, a properly-surfaced signposted footpath with interpretation boards at key points, followed by a cream tea. Nature is packaged and sold as a commodity. Nature is santised and tidied up. The work is something other people do, so that nature can be enjoyed as a themed experience.
There is no question that the people I was talking to are intelligent, and almost certainly they all enjoy the countryside. A few years ago I might have felt the same. But working on the woods gives you a new perspective and a closeness and intimacy with the natural world that you cannot get from a brief visit, from a footpath, from a pond-dipping platform or from a permanent bird-hide. We do not own woods as an investment, waiting for land values to appreciate, or some kind of large garden in which you employ a gardener to make it pretty and tidy. We wish to make an investment, yes, but the investment is in the future of the woods, and the people who might enjoy it, and most important of all, the wildlife that will live there, we hope for generations to come. To do the best for that wildlife, you need to get your hands dirty, use the Mark One Spade, get in there and connect with the nature you are trying to help.