A Year in the Woods by Colin Elford (Hamish Hamilton). Reviewed by Jon Berry
It’s rare that I read a nature book that doesn’t have the swirls and bubbles of fish at its centre, but Colin Elford’s A Year in the Woods came to me highly recommended – and from someone whose life is even more subaqueous than my own. It sat on a table for a few weeks, but once picked up drew me in, and I read it in a single sitting.
The author is a forest ranger on the Dorset-Wiltshire border, and lives something akin to the life many of us dream of; creeping among the deer, managing squirrel populations, alone but for the noises and sights of the wooded wilderness. He shoots, sets traps, stalks silently across miles of woodland, and sees more of nature in a month than most of us would see in a lifetime.
However, Elford’s life is real and deviates far from the country idyll found in high-end lifestyle magazines. For every stolen moment watching a barn owl, there’s a road traffic accident with a hapless deer to attend to, an injured animal to dispatch without sentiment. Sure, there are badger-watching evenings and encounters with inquisitive dormice among its pages, but the very real challenges facing rural populations – human and otherwise – are there too.
A Year in the Woods is written as a diary, and so we follow the author through each season, attaining at least some appreciation of the changing responsibilities of the forest ranger and the nuances of his landscape. Helpfully, a glossary is provided before January begins, and so the urban reader needn’t be mystified when the author begins gralloching.
(That is, removing the stomach and other organs of a shot deer – an activity that’s sure to put an end to any pronking).
Elford’s prose is economical, and one or two months seem all too brief. When December ends after only four pages, I felt a little short-changed. No reflections? No fireside musings on the year end? No feet up by the hearth, port in hand? Not even a celebratory cigar in a frosty clearing before the next month begins?
It is not that sort of book, and Elford not that sort of writer. There are no contrived dramas, no cliffhanging moments, and the only smoking gun is the one in the back of his Land Rover. A Year in the Woods moves along as it should – nothing seems to happen, but something is happening all the time. A bit like nature, really.