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Spirit of The Dark Wonder

An introduction to Woodlanders: Portraits From The Woods

Like many, I have been in awe and reverence of woodlands since childhood. It may be a result of folk tales, fairy stories or the anthologies of ghost stories given to me by my mother that I was fascinated by, the settings of which were invariably located in the woods. Born from those pages, a spectre-themed recurring dream I have features a headless horseman thundering through the undergrowth of a dark and menacing forest. My siblings and I built camps in the woods and filled them with the rudimentary trappings of home: a plank shelf, jam jars to hold wildflowers, snail shells and acorns, a rusty tin teapot and a couple of Puffin books. We didn’t know who owned the woodland that we played in, and we had no inkling of the meaning of trespass. Our parents seemed oblivious to our crepuscular wanderings until we told them that we had chanced upon a shed deep in the woods and strewn with dozens of black candles in various stages of waning wax. Our mother’s explanation of the dark arts of black magic and paganism only strengthened our terrified interest.


Only later did I begin to connect with the aesthetics of woodlands. I blame my straggling performance in cross-country runs at school on pausing to wonder at the majesty and scale of the oaks and the cathedralesque pillars of beech in the final, briar-tangled furlongs of our limb-ripping, lung-burning, character-building exercise.


Fast forward a few decades, and my tender-aged captivation with woods has not diminished. Today, woodlands still carry an air of mystery but have lost the threat of the lurking beast. Along with a lapping seashore and a starlit night, finding a secluded woodland, lying on one’s back and gazing up through the canopy is one of nature’s lullingly meditative therapeutic tranquilizers. The Japanese know it as shirin-yoku, and the Scandinavians list it under friluftsliv (open-air living) – an immersive healing experience among the towering trunks, from the leafy canopy to the understory and to fungi and the minutiae of insects, mosses and filmy ferns.

In pursuit of an around-the-clock shirin-yoku, I camped overnight in a local ancient woodland. I made camp and settled into my ringside pop-up seat just in time for dusk to silhouette the skeletal treetops. As night fell, the distant call of a tawny owl and an anonymous rustling in the undergrowth near my basha provided a suitable aura, and the mesmeric sparks rising from the fire almost compensated for the lack of stars. Fatigue sent me to an early bed. At breakfast, a watery sun nestled in a slate-grey sky above the clearing in the birch wood taunted me with a glimmer of warmth but failed to break through the low cloud. It was late morning when I ventured deeper into the dense, older part of the wood with my camera. I came across a small oval pond which I suspected may have been the remains of an opencast iron ore mine – a Roman road passed close by, part of a route that started at the estuary of the River Limen, now Rother, then a navigable waterway, and ended at the north Kent coast at Regulbium, now Reculver. The pond’s surface was covered in a thin sheet of minuscule-leafed duckweed. I set up my tripod in the Stygian gloom with little hope of a successful exposure. As I focused, a weak shaft of sunlight temporarily broke through the cloud and fell on the verdant skin. Then it was gone. I got the shot, and following a euphoric instant of sublime contentment, I contemplated the ghosts of legionaries, the otherworldliness, what lies beneath, the dryads and the naiads, the magic, a watery portal to an imaginary parallel and the hundreds of thousands of years of botanical, animal and human activity in this few square metres of ancient woodland.


Several years ago, I embarked on a forestry skills course with the sole intent of learning how to use a chainsaw safely. The plan was to make use of the numerous wind-fallen trees that litter the local roadsides to fuel the woodburning stove we use for supplementary heating. The course culminated in a practical and written examination. I did pass, but I confess not with flying colours. I suspect the examiner was lenient that day (perhaps it was a Friday). Despite the lukewarm praise, I was nonetheless proud to accept my “ticket” and became a qualified chainsaw operator. Hot on the heels of my qualification, the course instructor asked if I would accompany him to collect a small load of timber from a chestnut coppice wood in north Kent – and, while I was there, would I kindly take some photographs of a group of apprentices that may be working there? Approaching the entrance to the coppice from the busy public road, the woodland seemed quiet and deserted – a feeling soon dispelled by an enticing hint of woodsmoke hovering in the air as I opened the door of the pick-up to unlock the gate. Following the twists and turns of a rutted track running through a mixture of standing chestnut, younger coppice and mature oak, and the occasional quagmire, we reached a clearing in the trees. A series of tarpaulins roped to chestnut poles served as a temporary shelter from a threatening sky; a blackened iron kettle steamed over a fire as cutters and paling makers felled, split and stacked. What began as a pictorial record of working practices and processes soon developed into a collection of portraits. That small industrious community of exuberant apprentices and their dedicated instructors, their warm welcome and their anecdotes, formed the inspiration for a photographic project that became this book.


I joined in with the monthly meetings of the local coppice cooperative and was soon mixing with woodreeves, coppice workers and woodland owners. Some families go back several generations, with tales of great-grandfathers felling with axes and two-person saws. In chestnut woods in Kent, ancient coppice stools several metres in diameter are a testament to the long life of the trees, extended as they have been by human intervention and the obvious ecological benefits that provides.


A manager on the administrative fringes of the coppice world cautioned me that I would find it difficult to break into the inner sanctum of the industry; woodlanders would be secretive and reticent to stand in front of a camera. The opposite was true. I found them dignified and regularly eager to divulge the workings of their craft and environment, even, from time to time, to share their trials and tribulations. After all, this is the real world, albeit surrounded by birdsong. The personalities, stories, knowledge, skill, graft, sense of pride and unquestionable care for the woodlands in which they work and – in some cases – live became both infectious and irresistible. Like the spreading fungal tendrils of mycelia, the more woodlanders I met, the more I was told of other woodlanders that ‘deserved’ the focus of my lens: charcoal makers, coppice cutters, post and paling makers, horse loggers, wood carvers, cabin builders, flood management engineers, basket makers, tree planters, seed collectors and ecologists.


My original intention was to travel up, down and across the country searching for woodlanders. Eight years later, I have barely left the southeast corner of England – such is the concentration of subject matter. My only departure was a foray into south Wales to meet a renowned horse logger and a highly skilled band of woodworkers. This book is dedicated to the people on the following pages and to the many woodlanders I have yet to encounter: those for whom woodlands are a place in which to dwell, to ply a trade and who, in turn, take care of a most precious habitat.


© Keith Lovegrove

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