Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Wholesale Slaughter

Adrian Bell (1901-1980), Men and the Fields. Drawings & Lithographs by John Nash (London, B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1939; rpt. Stanbridge: Little Toller Books, 2009), pp. 29-31:
How much longer will the oaks I sat among still be standing? There is a wholesale slaughter of oaks going on here this month. But who is planting any? That there is a time for an oak to be felled, I agree; but those who cut them down should be made to clear up after them, not take a few yards of trunk and leave the rest to rot, and to plant tree for tree. Those useless tops were once sought after by the wheelwright, even the builder. To quote Walter Rose, 'The Village Carpenter': 'It sometimes happened that a piece of timber in our yard, too crooked for us carpenters to use, would be purchased by the wheelwright, because he saw in the natural contour just what he wanted, a curve difficult to obtain.'

Last spring I walked through an oak wood that was England and April in essence: it was at least a mile away from a tarred road. It was pillared with the most beautiful tall straight oaks that I have ever seen. It was a great natural hall, oak after oak flowing up straight from the ground and branching high overhead: vistas of them, clean vistas devoid of undergrowth. On the outskirts of the wood were wild cherry trees in flower. As I came into it that day the white petals of the cherry bloom were falling sparely on the path. Beside the path, on a low grassy bank, anemones were stirring with an air I could not feel. Inside the wood the ground was covered with primroses and violets, blue and white; they were in tight groups like posies at the feet of giants: just the low delicate flowers and the tall grey trunks. Birds sang, and the spaciousness of the grove gave them an unusually clear echo. As I stood a voice resounded through the wood: 'Prince!' Then I heard the tinkle of harrows through the tilth, as the horse which the man had called moved forward from the woodside.

When I came again to that wood, a week ago, the oak trunks lay out in the field, which was no longer tilth, nor likely to be for many a day, but full of huge ruts, waterlogged. The trees had been dragged out and carted away by tractor, and the approach to the wood was all mire and confusion. Many trunks still lay there, looking like serpents with their heads chopped off. The texture of the bark seemed still alive. Inside the wood the ground where the spring flowers grew was smothered with a tangle of tops. Only a few trees not worth cutting down stood up forlornly here and there. I heard sounds of a saw, and in among these boughs discovered an old man, as though he had been caught in them and was sawing his way out. He had been given as much of the tops, he said, as he could cut and carry away.

He lived in a cottage in the lane that ended at the opposite gate of the big field. How was he going to get the wood home? He was carrying it, he said, a piece at a time on his back. The state of the ground made the work harder because 'for every step you take forward you seem to take two back'. He was a pensioner, for whom time no longer had any money value. His ant-like labours had already resulted in a large heap of fuel in his garden, carried a piece at a time, half a mile there, and then half a mile to go back for another. It was strange to see this old man industriously salving a little store from the vastness of modern waste. On the one hand this old man eking out his substance within his small trim boundary; on the other the great machine of the economic system smashing down a host of trees and leaving the greater part of them in chaos. He was a little Robinson Crusoe, making repeated journeys to the wreck: his home was an island in an alien world. His rows of potatoes in summer, his garden shed built of faggots, his devices for keeping off birds and vermins from his seeds—a care and a husbanding was in them all. The labours of this month or months, carrying wood home on his back, would result next winter in a warmer room, a little more tobacco, or fat bacon with his potatoes.
Illustration by John Nash at the top of p. 29:Hat tip: Eric Thomson.


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