Author Topic: A View from the stump

A View from the stump
« on: May 30, 2021 »
by Tom

Somewhere at the edge of hearing, road traffic noise thrums over the moraine, sending its relentless shock wave through the boulder clay to the cherry roots by which I stand.  Our logjammed island allows no absolute immersion in nature: cram one’s head into the remotest, darkest corner of this wood, face into the litter, boot-toes tight down in the loam, hood cinched high.  Hold the breath, count the heartbeats.  Still that world rumbles in, the tide which doesn’t ever turn.

Thirty years ago, in pretty much the same spot where I stand now, I ate a cheese sandwich, and drank lukewarm tea from a flask lid, while perched ice-cold on a fresh oak stump.  Next to me, my tired old colleague fiddled with the wrapper of a Blue Riband chocolate bar, squelching the treat down through his toothless jaws in tiny, noisy lumps.  This was the day’s low point.  This was every day’s low point. 

The morning had been five hours’ glorious tree felling, with greasy, oily, ropey old chainsaws and creaky, worn-out winching tractors.  What would the afternoon hold once the gummy workmate put away his tin and rolled a smoke? Three more hours of glorious tree felling, smiting down sessile oaks two hundred summers old in under ten minutes.  Dragging snigs of stems to the wood-side.  Loading the stack yard with “sticks” - the best green logs for the sawmill - and grading our firewood into piles.  Raking the brash into house-scale fires, cored with bald tyres and diesel-soaked sacks. Setting these brash houses alight.  Raking and firing and raking again with our ancient loader tractors, until there was nothing but bare earth and these naked stumps.

The timber lorries came and the oaks disappeared.  We brought the firewood to the yard, and it became so much more wood in the pile. 

Twenty-nine springs ago we two men planted this place with new oaks, with sycamores, and cherries, and ash.  Nine thousand young trees.  And for several years after, we ran along the files and ranks of the wood with our flail tractors, removing lowland weeds and letting in light and air.  One piece forward in our opening gambit to create new wood.  The long game. 

Spring after spring for almost a decade we marched every square foot of the place to douse the understorey in herbicide, to let the trees have a decent chance of a healthy life without fear of being choked by vicious briar, or outgrown by birch and downy willow scrub this wet hole would love to be were nature to have its way.

Last winter saw me back here alone with chainsaw and winch, to harvest the first crop for firewood and let daylight in again. The weedy birch did well.  Few cherries survived.  No ash to speak of.  Some oak is good, but much is bent and neglected.  The sycamores are poor.

Here I am at the stump of the cherry I felled for this year’s spoons.  Or for some of them.  Clean, straight-grained birch came out of here, and became spoons.  One small sycamore got diverted from the log pile for spoons, due to the beautiful spalting in the wood as it seasoned.  All my spoon wood for twenty twenty came from this small, out-of-the-way place.

There are no tools with me today, and the dog is at home. I’m here alone at the stump I left last winter, letting the wood soak into me, rest on to me.

Every moment like this is a pivot on the seesaw.  Find that light, gravity-defying airiness by balancing the before and the ahead.  In woodcraft - making useful wooden things - the joy lives at that finely honed edge.  Makers make for this or that reason.  Good makers make to inhabit that thin line: to be right in the material as work proceeds towards the thing - the spoon or bowl or chair - without any other concern except for chasing down the tiny essence of the made thing.

Aside from hands, eyes and heart there is very little needed to be a good maker of, say, wooden spoons.  Handsaw, axe and a couple of knives. Oh, and time.  Years and years and years of time.