If I source, cut, split and stack wood myself, I feel I’ve earned the right to be warm in winter. It would be easier to have central heating, and not have to fiddle around with matches and kindling first thing in the morning, but the act of lighting a fire makes me feel connected to the world around me and always conscious of where our warmth and energy comes from.
Back in March, I got hold of 25 tonnes of fresh beech to process into firewood. I’m hoping that it will warm our house and water for the next three years. It came from a forest just north of here, where it had been removed to encourage the native trees to flourish. Beech has a beautiful texture and splits like a dream. In all honesty that wood stack has kept me sane during lockdown. Every day for months, over our weirdly isolating spring and summer of 2020, I have escaped the energy draining computer screen and set into the woodpile with an axe and a chainsaw. I feel bad that so much of the wood is destined for the stove so I’m making sure I have at least something else to show for it, something other than firewood.
I have made many bowls out of birch, pine, yew and juniper on the pole-lathe, but so far out of that huge pile of beech, I have turned only two. One very simple, humble and plain; the other more intricate, to mark the union of two very important friends. I would love to do more, but for now these two bowls serve to remind us not to take the wood we burn for granted.
When I raise my head from a completed bowl it feels like the world and time has moved on without me. The rhythm of the pole-lathe is mesmerising and hypnotic, like music which maybe explains why the woods, wood, woodwork and live music all strongly resonate with every aspect of my life. I have to approach both woodwork and music spontaneously and obliquely otherwise I feel boxed in and the spirit or spark is stifled. I usually have a vision for what I’m aiming for but don’t like to plan things too much. I treat it like a journey with an end point in sight but no idea what will happen along the way; in other words I basically make it up as I go along, learning as I go. A metaphor for life really; this year has shown us all that no matter how well planned we are or how thought through things are, stuff gets in the way and we must adapt and change.
There was once a large Sitka spruce tree near our house. It spread myriads of young spruce trees into the native Scots pinewood nature reserve and it needed to be felled. But, as with the pile of beech wood, it felt wrong to fell it and not to make something long-lasting out of it. So, once the spruce lay along the ground, I cut a four-foot long, knot-free, length and split it into quarters. Out of one of those quarters I carved a slender cone which I hollowed out into a wooden horn. I was determined to make it boom and resonate with the forest around me.
For many years now the spruce horn has greeted the arrival and departure of friends; marked births, deaths and other significant events, thanked the NHS, riled the rutting forest stags, awakened, soothed, annoyed and entertained! It has been stripped by the wind at 3,000 feet on the Cairngorm Plateau. It has reverberated like thunder at low tide in a cave on the Moray coast. It has even been looped and amplified alongside my guitar and voice to accompany yoga in our village hall… but the place it always sounds best, is right here in the Caledonian pinewood forest near to the fallen tree it once came from. The spruce tree now rots into the ground. It nourishes mosses, fungi, insects and plants. The missing four-foot section is barely noticeable.
Nearby, in a house in the forest, a hand reaches up to a hook on the wall and takes down a four-foot long conical horn. It’s early morning, there is dew on the ground and the forest is perfectly still and almost silent. There is the feeling of reverence; the huge pine trees stand like the pillars in a cathedral. A single, low, haunting note, almost a hum, reverberates through the mist and rebounds off trees. The red deer have returned to bellow and to roar; their reply evokes a long lost memory of the wolf and the lynx that centuries ago brushed past those very same trees.