Tales from the Wood

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Stormy Weather
What with two storms and a tidal surge it seems that this Winter will be one that Norfolk will remember for a long time to come. All of my local coastal haunts have been transformed and parts have simply disappeared. The North Hide at Cley Marshes - a lovely shelter from which to watch or sketch the wildlife is just not there! The hard-standing at Trimingham where I used to park before a spot of fishing can now boast two levels! And most strange of all, the beach is littered with brightly coloured plastic buckets and spades; apparently the contents of a Cromer beach shop, some 7 miles up-tide.

Only a few windblown trees in the wood to get clear - we got off quite lightly considering the strength of the winds. I was dreading that the fencing we’ve repaired (over 100 new posts) would be ruined by falling trees. Bill (some-time fisherman and fencing specialist) and his son Mark have done a lovely job of getting it straight. I must admit, I mostly watched and fed them minced pies, but when I could, I gave them a helping-hand digging the holes. Well of course...with my new bucket and spade, I had no option!

Skidding and Hitching
There are lots of labour saving forestry devices out there, mostly petrol powered contraptions and mostly very, very expensive.

One of the more awkward tasks is dragging felled timber out of the woods (sometimes called skidding). Tractor-driven attachments designed for this type of work usually incorporate hydraulic claws and winches; but perhaps a bit ‘over the top’ for a 60 year old tractor.

The ‘Little Grey Fergie’ seems better suited to a more time-proven contrivance: a length of rope and a ‘Timber Hitch’. This elegantly simple hitch is easy to tie and more importantly, very easy to untie. It’s made fast onto the Fergie’s rear linkage so you can raise and lower it simply with the flick of a lever.

Perhaps not quite as ‘low-impact’ as using a working pony and tackle, or as speedy as a modern hydraulic implement - nevertheless, the humble ‘Timber Hitch’ gives you a certain sense of pride that you’re using the same knot that has served forest workers for centuries.

Bending and Adapting
A new idea? No, I don’t have many of those, but a nice (if almost insignificant) example of adaptive construction in progress. The handle was being blackening in a flame and remembering that heat helps wood to bend, there occured a typical ‘what if’ situation, so I bent the handle as it got hot and, well...I got a bent handle.

Now there’s an interesting evolutionary theory called adaptive mutation which proposes that mutation (in an evolutionary sense) is a response to environmental pressures. It’s a bit like the giraffe developing a long neck because its food source was becoming out of reach, rather than the giraffe which just happened to have a longer neck got more food (natural selection).

This seems to fit very nicely with adaptive construction, in that you don’t just wait till something happens (like you just happen to catch your sleeve on the hot handle). No, you play around with things as suggested by the situation in front of you. (it’s hot - hot wood bends - what if... It’s a mutation in response to pressure (quite literally in this case).

Now I don’t particularly like the word ‘mutation‘ in describing creative activity and there’s no doubt a more appropriate, slightly more poetic term, but I think the analogy is a useful one even if ‘adaptive mutation’ in ecological circles, is still only a theoretical proposition.

In early July we ran a two day workshop with a charming group of Estonian Architectural-Conservation students. The event was booked by the Yarmouth Conservation Trust who are hosting this very productive student exchange.
The sun shone and we had a very pleasant couple of days gathering materials, learning new skills and applying them to some green-wood construction projects. Such splendid weather - we needn’t have bothered with the new shelter - in fact, thinking about it, it hasn’t rained since?


The Show Begins
The new season’s work has started, and from now until June I’ll be tracing the development of work leading up to the Cold Press show. It all starts with a tree; in this case a fairly large sycamore, which was earmarked to be thinned-out last year. After felling and snedding, the straight and clear sections were sawn out, stacked and ‘stickered’ (raised slightly off the damp floor). Everything else becomes firewood for next winter and the brash is collected up ready to make faggots to fuel summer hot water. Almost immediately, the wood will start to dry out and ‘check’, so the end-grain is sealed with hot pitch and kept in the wood for shade. A couple of billets were split on site for immediate working and taken down to the workshop in the truck. Of course the little Fergie tractor is being mollycoddled in it’s shelter - well...it is really cold!

1/4 acre of Rhododendrons are finally cleared
It took a long time to get around to it, but the biggest thicket of R. ponticum are finally cleared. It took a great deal of courage and a new baby chainsaw (only 3.1KG) to deal with the tangled mass of branches and twisted tendrils. You can see quite clearly in the final shot, that the space left is totally void of any other growth - rhododendrons out-compete and literally poison-off any competitor or potential forager. After a bit of selective felling this space will be replanted with an understory of hazel or hornbeam. The chainsaw’s a little beauty (yes, really.....only 3.1KG), just right for a bit of carving or bowl-blank cutting; I took 15 portraits of it, but this is definitely its best side.