At the heart of my story is the idea that how we value things made from natural materials is a reflection of how we value nature itself. In our recent history, we have removed things made from natural materials from our homes, things you’d use day in, day out, and I think that has an effect. If we have no deep, daily association with our woods and timber, we won’t value and protect our trees.
Ash has been the most versatile and functional of the trees that grow in temperate climates around the world over the course of human history, and the respect that our ancestors would have had for ash was born out of how useful it was. If you look at how much we used it, and its versatility, and then you consider how our use has fallen off in the last 50 to 60 years, that’s a metaphor for our relationship with nature.
There is inevitably a dilemma between my affection for a tree while it’s living, and felling it in order to convert it into lots of different things, which will be useful to many different people in different ways. That is a dilemma which has been familiar to man for a very long time. But you’re not killing these trees, you’re just cutting them down. You’re resetting the clock. This is a fundamental aspect of woodland management in Britain. You cut them down; they grow again. You also cut a tree down to allow sunlight into the wood, which increases and improves the biodiversity and ecology of that woodland.
We have a contract with our woodlands. We have managed them for a very long time, and that means the ecology of the woodland is, in a sense, reliant on us. Generally speaking, research has shown that the biodiversity of our woodland declines if it is left alone.
We are at a strange position in Britain with respect to woodland management at the moment: there are an awful lot of people who think that our woodlands ought to be protected by doing nothing with them, and that’s wrong. If you go back just 50 years, you would find that everybody understood that trees coppice, and that’s how you extend their lives. An ash tree, for example, will live as a single stem or ‘maiden’ tree for no more than 200 years. If you coppice it, it might live to 400 or 500. There’s a lime tree at Westonbirt Arboretum that was growing when the Romans were here. It’s 2,000 years old and has been coppiced every 25 years. If it had never been coppiced, it would have died long ago.
We have lost a lot of knowledge about our trees and how to maintain our woodlands. At the talks I give, I ask people to put up their hands if they feel confident they can recognise an ash tree, and I generally get about 20 per cent who put their hand up. That is a radical change; if you went back 60 years you’d probably find 95 per cent of the population could recognise an ash tree.
One of the lovely things about writing this book was finding craftsmen whose intimacy and understanding of the timber, of this fantastic natural resource, is profound. So the knowledge hasn’t been lost altogether; it’s just in fewer hands than it was previously. That gives me cause to go out and bang the drum about this and say we need to widen the knowledge base again.
When I moved to the Black Mountains in south Wales 12 years ago, I wanted to associate myself with the landscape in a meaningful way. I wanted to understand the cultural inheritance the land provides, and I didn’t want to live like a refugee in my own country. I wanted a meaningful relationship with the landscape.
I feel the urge to go travelling deeply. It comes in waves, and sometimes it’s overwhelming. When I rode a bike around the world, I rode in a westerly direction. I promised myself at the end of the journey that, at the other end of my life, I’d do it again in an easterly direction. I’m a way off doing it – maybe 15 or 20 years – but at some point in my sixties I expect to get on my bike and head east. That’s something I’d very much like to do.
I run a community woodland group and lots of families come once a month for a very informal, mildly educational day. I try and impart a little bit of knowledge, but actually it’s mainly about mucking about in the woods, lighting a fire and toasting marshmallows. It’s only a small group, but it’s important. If lots of people were doing something similar then it may well be that the next generation will grow up to have an intimate relationship with our trees and woods again. I think that would be fantastic.
1967 Born in Birmingham
1989 Graduates from the University of Bristol with a degree in history
1996-99 Cycles around the world
2007 Co-publishes The Wrong Kind of Snow
2010 Publishes It’s All About the Bike
2012 Presents BBC series Tales from the Wild Wood
2013 Cycles the Trans-Amazonian Highway with former cricketer Freddie Flintoff for Sky TV series Flintoff’s Road to Nowhere
2015 Publishes The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees
This article was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.