Caught by the River

The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees

13th April 2016

Rob Penn counting tree rings on his felled ash Rob Penn counting tree rings on his felled ash

The following extract comes from The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, newly out in paperback. For the chance to win a copy of the book this Friday, make sure you’re subscribed to our newsletter: the sign-up bar can be found on the top right hand side of the site.

Words: Robert Penn

On one day, under the expert guidance of Ed Morell, a friend, tree surgeon and climbing instructor, I scaled my ash and sat in the canopy, high above the woodland floor. I wanted to see if the tree’s form itself would reveal any insights into the best use I could make of the timber. Tree climbing is also, of course, great fun: like riding a bicycle downhill, it reminds us of childhood. I got more than I bargained for with Ed, though.

‘When you’re up in the canopy and the adrenaline is flow- ing, there is a heightened sense of awareness and at that point, a greater affinity with the tree,’ Ed said, while we were getting into our harnesses on the ground. Sixty foot up, I was consumed by fear rather than a sense of affinity. I sat on a branch and watched Ed clamber, run, skate and spring through the canopy like a chimpanzee. Sometimes he landed on branches no larger than 3 inches in diameter; they swished and swayed under his weight, setting the outermost twigs of the canopy clattering into each other. He was illustrating the high strength and the flexibility of ash, but he was also having a great time. Ed estimated the height of my tree at 30 metres. The canopy, 15 metres wide at its greatest spread, had clearly grown with- out hindrance from neighbouring trees. It was a fine tree. I felt the first twinge of anxiety about felling it.

We spent most of the afternoon in the canopy. It was like being in a trance. Time passed so gently. When we lowered ourselves back to the ground in the weakening light, Ed said: ‘It’s as if you’re in stasis up there. Coming back to earth all the senses kick in. It’s like being born again.’

A few days later, I camped under the tree on a half moon of flat ground that was probably once a charcoal-burning pit. As night fell, I thought of the soldiers dug into their trenches further up the hill during the Civil War, preparing to ‘sheathe their swords in [their countrymen’s] bowels’, as one contemporary chronicler put it. I thought of the charcoal-makers who camped in the woods all summer, and the woodmen from the village who would have known every coppice stool and tree. I lay in my sleeping bag under the bivvy, next to the dogs and the fire, listening to the wind in the boughs – roaring and bellowing like the voice of the Green Man. ‘Inspiration’, according to Robert Graves in The White Goddess, can be found in the ‘act of listening to the wind . . . in a sacred grove’. As I fell asleep, I felt the gentle, irresistible invasion of the enchanted wood fill my last thoughts.

When I woke, the wind had dropped and the fire was out. A blanket of frost surrounded the camp. I made tea and sat on one of the roots of my tree. Ash is a deeply rooting tree, especially in mixed stands where there is competition from shallow-rooting species, and can penetrate over 6 feet into loamy, forest soils.

I thought again about felling the tree. There is a dilemma between the pleasure a tree gives while growing, and excitement at the prospect of what it might be converted into once it has been felled. ‘I like to think of the tree itself: first the close, dry sensation of being wood; then the grinding of the storm; then the slow, delicious ooze of sap,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in her short story, ‘The Mark on the Wall’. She goes on to describe the death of the tree, concluding: ‘Even so, life isn’t done with; there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms, where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree.’

I studied the main stem. At over one hundred years old, it was a good age for an ash. Would it be better, I wondered, to leave the tree to rot and slowly crumble away, or to convert it and immortalize it as artefacts? I felt confident that felling the tree would be good for the integrity and stability of the biotic community in Callow Hill Wood. What about the spirit of the tree, though?

Across the world, people have perceived the woods and forests to be full of spirits. In India, sacred groves are thought to be full of Shakti, the uncontrollable forces of life and agents of change. In Japanese culture, folk tales are thick with imaginary creatures and spirits that roam the forests. In the Amazon rainforest, indigenous people sense spirits everywhere. The existence of a wild man of the woods, who knew the secrets of nature, was a widespread folk belief across Europe into the modern era. In The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Mr Mole is scared by the hidden eyes in the dark wood. For- esters and woodmen have continually sought to placate the spirit of trees before felling them. During the T’ang dynasty (ad c.618–907), arguably the high point of Chinese civilization, woodmen bowed to the trees and offered a promise to use the timber well, before they felled them, in obedience to the Taoist philosophy concerning the continuity in the relationship between humans and all species. The Maoris in New Zealand traditionally held a ceremony before felling a kauri tree. In parts of Germany, it was conventional to ask the permission of a tree before felling it, well into the twentieth century.

I, too, asked permission of my ash tree. In truth, I felt a bit ridiculous. But as an expression of my belief that we are bound to nature, even if we cannot see and feel it, I finished my tea, stood to attention, surveyed the tree from top to bottom and bowed. When I spoke – to ask permission and to make my promise to use the entire tree and use it well – the dogs thought I was talking to someone. They went bounding off through the wood, barking.

Rob Penn will be joining us at The Good Life Experience 16-18 September.