If you go down to the woods…

…you’ll find me coppicing!

Things have changed dramatically, but now I’m starting to take the reins on life and I am experimenting with some new things. Like trying my softy London office hands at arboriculture.

The past few years since I last posted have veered between weird, intense, depressing, stressful, uncertain, wonderful, rewarding, shattering, enlightening, fortifying, and transcendental. In brief, my marriage fell apart rather suddenly at the end of 2014, and somewhat unexpectedly too, but my life has rebounded with a truly incredible person at my side.

Six months ago we wandered from the course we had set before, and moved out of London. For me that’s probably a big deal that I’m yet to come to terms with. I poke around this concept but am yet to actually engage with it properly? We set up in Rye, East Sussex, and began trying to divest ourselves from the lingering links we still held to the metropole. I continue to commute into London early on four mornings of each week, scared misty sheep spilling away from the embankment as the train shudders past. My Fridays off are now occupied by birdsong, sweat, bees, and shades of exhaustion.

On the glimmer of an off-chance I applied for a role advertising for a coppicer’s assistant or apprentice. Now, I’m almost 34 so I figured that I wouldn’t be what they wanted, but I do love the woods and I do care very deeply about the impending biodiversity catastrophe that we are about to face. I needed to try to do something about that in my own small way. Coppicing is an ancient technique of woodland management whereby you fell overly dominant trees and form new structures to better encourage the widest variety of flora and fauna to move in, East Sussex is renowned for it’s coppicing heritage. This process enhances the general health of the entire woodland and from that virile foundation it starts to fertilise and replenish the surrounding country in the same way that a trawler-free marine park leads to great increases in fish yields in surrounding waters.

I emailed the address on the advert, spoke to Rich on the phone, and he picked me up in his 4×4 with less than an hour’s notice. Away to the woods we went. I emailed Caoimhe to say that if I didn’t come home it was because I’d been chainsawed. After all this did all feel way too easy. Suspiciously simple.

We walked around his section of this 64 acre wood (don’t ask me to describe what an acre is, either in scientific or visual terms, I cannot) and Rich explained his vision – where the wood was now, what it needed to be. We ended up agreeing to test each other out for a few weeks to determine whether this would work for both of us. Could I change to a life of working in the woods, abandoning my well paid and semi-secure London-based role at Internet Archive? Could he get on with me, and was I what he needed to get the job done? I was more than willing to give it a damn good try.

Chainsaw dust spraying everywhere

What follows is a description of Day One on the job in the wood. It is partly for me, partly for whoever cares, and a record of what I learn on the way.

The following week I mounted my lil blue Brompton bike, tackled Rye Hill with all of my lung capacity, and cycled the brief four miles out into the countryside. Hauled the bike over the metal fence, tumbled myself over after it, grinned, and followed the sizzling pylons to Rich’s camp area. He has a very fine setup there. A huge tarpaulin roof to protect his food trailer, a composting toilet, a couple of smaller shelters for wood and miscellaneous equipment. Gorgeous greenwood handmade picnic table and benches, candelabra dripping pearls as though teenage goths had passed by in the night. Oaks and birch surround the camp, willow and chestnut further away, hornbeam speckled throughout. Apparently: I’m still learning to identify some of these.

A stack of oak planks, drying

Preliminaries covered a health and safety briefing and some basic HR stuff. Then I had a little ‘What’s in the box’ moment until I found out it was my helmet replete with visor and ear guards. The fanciest hat I’ve ever worn and one I would be instantly grateful for. Rubber palmed gloves slid onto both hands, borrowed tools secured in deep trouser pockets, coffee consumed, out we went to the main coppicing area.

The edge of Rich’s plot is bounded to the west by a public footpath, the north by a fence and then a field, the south by pylons, the east is as yet unexplored by me. This kingdom is very self-contained and I do struggle to poke my mind beyond its boundaries. The plan is to coppice the whole strip along the footpath for perhaps 40 x 150 feet. Sun will flood in, grass will colonise the path edge, flowers will fill the next strip, newly planted saplings will form a low line of trees beyond that, then a dead hedge will cut off this area from the rest of the woodland and form a marvellous new condominium for bees, birds, beetles. The scale of the task might not look enormous but that’s a lot of wood that has to shifted by hand and, if this is going to work out, then I suspect largely by my hands while Rich’s chainsaw provides backing vocals. I was nervous but eager to get started. The day was bright but not very hot, staying still for too long would bring on a chill. So basically it was perfect for hard work.

The Camp area as seen from the edge of the coppice area

First task, clearing brash. Brash is all the twiggy bits that an arborist will discard because it’s no good for firewood, timber, woodworking, etc. You shouldn’t really fell more trees until you’ve cleared up what has already fallen. It’s safer and it’s just plain neater. I was super grateful for that visor as all the twigs in the world were trying to claw my eyes out. So where does brash go? The dead hedge receives it all. This site slopes gently from north to south so what you do is lay the lop/stem (cut end) down slope, and the top (twiggy bits) up slope, then keep arranging new additions in the same orientation – pushing the lop down into the top of the bit lower down. You end up with a vast interwoven pile of wood. Over the years this will rot down, at a rate of about a foot per year, and become a low bank ready to be colonised by other plants. Archaeologists can identify where these used to run. This particular dead hedge is about 100ft long and 7ft high in many places, so it’s going to be around for a while! Which is good because it’s bloody hard work clearing brash. It’s not particularly heavy but it involves dozens of trudges and lots of wrestling with awkward shapes. Birch is very easy to handle because it inclines toward broom shapes – things where you can hug several trunks at once and carry them off. Hazel though is a bastard to clear. Swirling vortexes of confused shapes like some diabolical sorcerer’s nightmarish labyrinth. It takes a lot of extra handling and it is slow going. Not ideal when you are trying to show that not only do you a) not mind working hard but that b) you are actually capable of doing so. Those are two separate things, two boxes I need to tick.

A dead hedge

Cord wood is your run-of-the-mill (hmm, lumber saying?) firewood log. A cord is, I believe, an actual measure of wood which is legally binding in some countries. In the same way that a shot of whiskey might be 25ml and 40% ABV exactly. It can be so exact that there are very good formulas for the amount of heat that can be generated by a properly processed cord. I don’t think there are legal restraints in the UK for this kind of thing, which is excellent because wood comes in all shapes and sizes and it seems ludicrous to reject perfectly good logs due to a few centimetres of missing girth. Bearers are the long and slightly thinners lengths of wood which form the pair of rails upon which you build a pile of cord wood. Dragging cord and bearer timber is also hard work but it is made a lot simpler by judicious use of magical tools.

Timber tongs! Where have you been all my life? Not that I ever really had a proper use for you, but I feel like I could pick up almost anything with these things and expend half the energy I would if I bent down and got under the dead weight of a log. Railway sleeper? No problem. Leg of beef? No worries. Corpse? What corpse? You simply press these curled pincers against the log you want to carry and the shape opens them up, once you get beyond the halfway point on the log’s circumference you just pull back slightly and the sharp points grip the log so simply that it’s astounding. To me anyway. If you choose the right part of the log to grab then you can balance it well against your torso and carry great weights over and over again. Which is of course very handy when you’ve signed up to do just that from 8am til 5pm!

I had to guard the public footpath in case of walkers because around me fell perhaps 15 birch trees and a couple of chestnuts in an hour and a bit. Nothing huge, but all were in the way because the other reason you want to clear away all your brash and cord wood as soon as it comes down is that there are sometimes much bigger things to fell. This oak is perhaps 100 years old but it too had to come down.

The large oak we felled first

I understood why it had to come down, but I have to admit to a sense of loss and sadness when I knew it had to happen. In the end there are well-established trees in most unmanaged woodlands which are actively trying to out-compete their neighbours. When an oak is successful it means annihilation for many of its neighbours and most of the woodland’s floor flora. The canopy of a large oak is so huge and so dense that nothing below it can get the light it needs to thrive. Biodiversity declines as a result so coppicing tries to reset the balance. ‘Coppicing with standards’ is the term for allowing some of the mature trees to survive where they seeded themselves, but it is up to the arborist to determine how best to help a wood to thrive again.

You need all manner of licenses to fell a tree with a diameter this large, but you also should probably have experienced assistance. I am not experienced assistance but it just so happened that Rich’s neighbour Mike was more than willing to help him out. The woods might not seem to you like community places but it turns out that you are probably wrong. From the neighbouring plots I met Mike, Michael, and Mark today. All were friendly people eager to help each other out and lend time in exchange for time, or time for loans of mechanical equipment. It’s actually a wholesome community in there. It is also slightly weird to see people coming out of the trees as if they spawned there. Think the start of the Blood Harvest campaign in Left 4 Dead 2 for an outline of what I’m thinking.

Mike and Rich plotted the demise of that mighty oak after lunch. I did little beyond clearing trip hazards and winding up weight and line until the tree was roped up properly and the sawing could begin. It was to be my job to man the winch about 40 metres from the tree and, only if the signal was given, to work that winch as directed until the tree toppled. I was to be the final persuader for it to lie down. I set up my camera on a tripod to capture The Fall and Mike bravely consigned his GoPro to a spot directly under where the oak was due to topple, to get a worm’s-eye-view of events.

Felling is a tentative operation. Trees won’t just go where you want them to go and so many variables can come along to turn it into an incredibly dangerous piece of work. Here’s how I understand the process so far:

Determine where you think you can get the tree to fall, look for intermediate branches in other trees which might cause it to get stuck or change direction. Look for birds nests, just in case. Look at wind speed. Look at the natural lean of the tree. Look for signs of rotting. Check the landing ground for anything that could be destroyed (in our case a footbridge, and a newly erected sign explaining that coppicing is drastic-looking but definitely not evil). Check the landing ground for anything that the trunk could fall on to – you do not want several thousands of £pounds£ of oak being made worthless if the trunk snaps in horrific ways all because there was a stump in just the wrong place and snapped it like a pencil.

Sign explaining the concept of coppicing

Imagine where you want the trunk to ‘hinge’ at its base. The hinge is the line of wood that you do not expect to cut through and is at right-angles to the direction you hope the tree to fall. The weight of the tree and other cuts and wedges should be enough to ensure that the hinge snaps itself and guides the tree over.

Cut the buttresses away from the base of the tree. These are the natural growths most trees will gain to brace themselves against the wind or gravity. Once they are gone the hinge has a better chance of being able to direct the tree’s fall.

Chainsaw cutting the buttresses of an oak

Cut a V shaped wedge out of the tree on the side you anticipate the fall.

Cut a line on the other side of the trunk, slightly above the original V wedge but leaving plenty of hinge intact.

Now the winch might come into play or wedges can be hammered into that rear cut to start the tree leaning into its fall. Normally the intention would be for the wedges to be enough to convince the tree to give in, and if not then the winch at the end of the steel cable would guide it down. I could feel the thump of the mallet on the wedge in the base of the oak. It transmitted through the tree and along 40 metres of cable, up through the handle of the winch, into my hand. The report of the impact came to my ears fractionally after I felt it in my hand every time. Ultimately in this case the oak decided to give in quite a bit earlier than expected, when Rich actually still had his saw in the rear, after knocking in some wedges. Not ideal but it was still well controlled.

The use of wedges and cuts to fell an oak tree

As the oak came down towards me it was so unexpected but overwhelmingly magnificent that I let out an involuntary ‘Woah!’ I cannot really remember being so awed out of the blue. I stood there as a vast cloud of dust and leaves billowed around me and I snapped my visor down quickly. Silence returned to the woods.

The felled oak in the woods of East Sussex

Even the birds seemed stunned.

Placing a GoPro camera between two logs in case the oak fell directly on itMike was able to retrieve his camera intact, which was a miracle bearing in mind all those tons of tree splayed around it. I seriously doubt whether a direct hit would have been healthy for the GoPro. I look forward to seeing the footage though! Mine was sideways on and though it captures the essence of things, it doesn’t do it justice. At all.

(skip to 11:25 for the main event)

That afternoon a further pair of oaks came down. Not as huge as the first but still several tons and several grand’s worth of wood. It will also take a ton of effort to turn that into earnings though. Felling is in many ways the simplest bit of the whole process.

The second oak of the day blocked the footpath so I was obliged to clear as much brash as possible to get it opened again. By 4pm I was badly flagging. I hadn’t brought enough water and possibly not enough food, or not enough food of the right type. It got to the point where my brain started to feel empty and I was having trouble coordinating my legs. Pulling and pushing a trolley full of cord wood was no fun at all by now. I stumbled over the flinders of branches and found myself unsure whether I was walking through saplings or not. There was a strange perverse sense of enjoyment to it all but I was getting to the point of needing to just stop for the day.

The third oak gave me a little respite as it needed a winch manning once again. I responded to Rich’s signals as he cut away at its base. I tugged the handle several times and paused at the signal, then a few more tugs and with a terrible grace the tree just seemed to gently yield to me and snuff itself out. The mechanical power of the winch made the tree feel like nothing. I was swept up in another compression wave of dead leaves and dust, and three enormous trees were down in one afternoon.

My Grandma tells me that once, as a small child, I saw a row of trees so beautiful that I had tears in my eyes. I would love that to be true, I have a feeling it might be. I felt raw emotions at each of these deaths, but bittersweet emotions for sure. I always remembered that it was very likely that I was helping dozens of new trees and plants to spring to life. The dominance of these bullying Goliath oaks was over, all hail all those little Davids soon to come?

As Mike dropped me home I reflected that I was super-appreciative to have dodged the bullet with a cycle ride home in that state. I would have made it but I might have been ruined doing it. It was such a hard day’s work. My hands had felt raw almost all day, I was buised, stretched, scratched, all done in, but I could still say that I actually enjoyed it. That’s a very promising start in my opinion. Whether that opinion was shared by Rich remained to be seen, but I had another chance to explore this fascinating vocation on the next Friday.

New word of the day – Brash

Villain of the day – All hazel brash

Tool of the day – Timber tongs

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