The last time I remember being as ‘in’ to trees as I find myself right now was a good three decades ago when I was maybe six years old. In those days making leaf pictures or helicoptering sycamore seeds from between finger and thumb were all in a day’s fun. Then as a teenager, I was regularly co-opted into constructing never-ending log piles with my dad – vainly trying to emulate the so-neat ones he’d seen outside Austrian chalets. I can hear him now inviting visitors into a wintry garden to admire his log pile. But, having moved to Suffolk from Hackney and realised that the trees at the edge of our field are actually a two-acre neglected woodland overrun with brambles, the clock has come full circle. It’s my turn again to become fanatical about wood.
With a hungry wood-burning stove to feed through a long, cold winter, and the knowledge that unmanaged woodland would be seen as oh-so-slack in the countryside, there was work to be done. Enter the power tools. But not before some serious investigation that threw up suggestions from flame-thrower to poison and my own wrong-headed idea of pigs last year. The hope was that they’d munch through every inch of undergrowth, but I fed them (as we also planned to eat them) and they steered clear of the spiky brambles, wisely preferring pig-nuts. So this winter, the pig ark stood empty, our freezer was quite full, and I planned a new attack on the brambles – with a petrol-powered brush-cutter.
Power tools and I have never previously crossed paths, but I was soon a fan. Nothing itches a scratch quite as successfully as the nerve-jangling, total absorption of a long armed brush cutter. An overlooked part of the appeal is the necessary get-up. A boiler suit cinched with a belt at the waist is essential. For Christmas I got a new one, coffee-coloured rather than the Quink ink blue I’d prefer, but thick cotton, and a bit land girl in a way. Then I wear a carrying harness, sturdy gloves, wellies, orange helmet, ear-protectors and a face visor. It’s all very unisex.
The only limit to my enjoyment is how long the petrol lasts. One tank usually gives me enough time to clear two longish paths. Winter’s fallen leaves improved the visibility of bullying bramble stalks that overrun everything and need severing, and as all the berries were long gobbled by the birds – thankfully none were nesting over the winter – I felt less intrusive in the wood.
When the petrol splutters to an end, I’m usually drenched with sweat. The slayed brambles need raking and burning. Only then can I see the possibility that in the spring some biodiversity may return to the wood. The trees still need to be pruned or felled depending which merit the newfound space, and hopefully the seeds of plants blown in and buried for years will soon have their say. A carpet of bluebells would keep me very happy beneath the Oak, Holly, Willow, Ash, Hawthorn, Sloe, and Beech trees that I’ve identified so far.
My wish list for the wood is long: to build a platform to sit on and look out over the neighbouring reed beds, to have a bird watching tower for the illusive Bittern, to learn how to handle a chainsaw myself, maybe a candlelit walk. Lots of dreams – perfect to occupy the hours of woodland work that lie ahead of me.