David Knight - Wild Oxfordshire Chair of Trustees
In the forests of Japan's North Alps a group of people are standing amongst the trees in quiet contemplation, the only sound around them being birdsong and the gentle rustling of the wind through the leaves. Some folk have their eyes closed as they focus on the unique smell of the forest, the resinous smell of pine trees and the fungal smell of decay and renewal as leaves, twigs and logs slowly decompose to release food and nutrients for a new generation of trees. Others can feel the breeze on their face.
They are all partaking in shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, using all five of their senses to be in the moment. They listen to the rustling of the beetle, feel the warmth of a ray of sunlight through the tree canopy and notice a kaleidoscope of greens in the mossy forest floor.
The resulting sense of calm and peace is so beneficial for the mental well-being of forest bathers that their presence is supported by the Japanese state. Since being developed in Japan in the 1980's, the idea of nature therapy has spread around the world. In Britain we realised its true potential during the COVID epidemic when walks in woods, parks and along river banks helped millions of people through the mental stresses of isolation and lockdown.
In a birch woodland outside the town of Mora in Sweden a group of people sit on tree stumps around a campfire, each with a sharp knife in their hands carving a spoon. In rural Sweden the skills of crafting wooden implements has been passed down the generations and the Swedish Government supports the development of slöjd or handcrafts. There is an easy silence among the group as they enter a state of slöjdfulness, or mindfulness, induced through craft work. With a sharp tool in their hand and with wood chips flying, everyone’s attention is focussed entirely in the moment to create a wooden object of beauty and function.
The marriage of crafting in a woodland setting has not always been so peaceful. In many summer woodlands of Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth century groups of men would be working hard processing trees for wooden implements such as chair legs. These so-called Bodgers would be on piece work, paid for each batch of chair legs they could rive and shape from the beech and ash trees around them, using shave horses and drawknives and perhaps pole lathes for high-end turned legs. The Chiltern hills were a hot-spot for bodging and the furniture factories of High Wycombe had an insatiable appetite for the woodland products coming from the skilled hands of the bodgers.
With a fire made from shavings to brew their tea and simple huts to sleep in this must have been a hard life with low pay but perhaps they too were able to enjoy moments of peace amongst the trees and gain pleasure in the skillful rounding of a freshly split ash log into a chair leg.
Before the industrial revolution, British woodlands were intensively managed for woodland products including charcoal for fuel, pea sticks, pit props, besom brooms, wattle, and thatching spars. Woodland management would take advantage of the amazing ability of deciduous trees to regrow if cut back to the stump, perhaps an evolutionary shadow of when straight-tusked elephants wandered the landscape of pre-ice age Britain, using their bulk to knock over trees to gain access to browse.
So techniques such as coppicing the hazel understorey and leaving standard trees to grow amongst them mimic a pre-historic woodland landscape of mega-herbivores keeping open woodland glades to increase light levels, maximising the three-dimensional shape of the canopy and age distribution of trees. This structural diversity provides an amazing woodland habitat for the plants, birds and invertebrates that call woodland their home. Traditional woodland management can therefore provide a truly sustainable source of woodland products whilst at the same time providing a home for species such as dogs mercury, silver-washed fritillary and nightingales. The reintroduction of European bison to a woodland in Kent offers a tantalising glimpse of a return to a more natural management of woodland.
Sadly, our demand for woodland products has significantly diminished and most traditional management of woodland is now carried out by nature conservation organisations. A few organisations such as the National Coppice Federation and the Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Green Wood Woodworkers seek to keep traditional woodland crafting alive and hence give purpose to our managed woodlands.
In Oxfordshire the local group the Association of Pole Lathe Turners meets regularly in the woods to carve spoons and bowls, make stools and benches and share skills and experience in working wood with keen steel tools. Enjoying both the contemplative environment of a deciduous woodland with the pleasure of crafting in good company whilst tuning into the call of nuthatches and blackcaps with an azure haze of bluebells as background cannot be more enjoyable.
Being amongst the trees whilst engaged in a mindful and productive activity is so rewarding for human health whilst also allowing a place for the mammals, birds, plants and invertebrates that call the woodland their home.
As the wood chips fall to the ground and a wooden spatula emerges from a freshly harvested hazel log it is good to imagine how we humans can play out a ghost role of the past activities of, say, an ancient herd of aurochs as they crashed through the woods, perhaps pursued by a wolf pack, sending trees and shrubs crashing to the ground and adding to the disturbance and diversity of the woodland that makes it such a rich home for wildlife.