Sunday, January 28, 2007

A New Treehouse?

Does it qualify as a treehouse? Good view out over the valley, anyway.
Pretty low to the ground, but only at one end,
and it's right at the top of the wee wood, backed up to the granite hilltop.
Yeah, I reckon it's gonna be a treehouse. Spruce roundwood free from forest operations and planking reclaimed from Tom's big treehouse.
Now to think about an awning roof using secondhand marquee canvas. More developments anon.


Anonymous said...

Glorious setting, Ed. Can't wait to see it all finished, and you sitting out there with a glass of Liffey water in your hand!

Fifi ;o)

Anonymous said...



Ed Iglehart,
Having visited your site, appreciated your pictures, and looked at your description of your countryside, you would seem to be ideally placed to enlighten me with a insider’s view of the evolution of the Scottish landscape.

As an admirer of the Southern English tradition that produced Gilbert White’s “Natural History of Selborne”- one of the first books to show an understanding of ecology- I also believe that, instead of the “Adam Smith economics” that encouraged gigantism, the kind of small, human scale and sustainable economic systems suggested by E.F. Schumacher were anticipated by the campaigning of the English radical William Cobbett right at the start of the nineteenth century. And amongst other traditional English values he held was a deep love of trees and feeling that he could only be comfortable when his view included a bit of traditional English woodland.

I first heard the quote above about trees from a colleague on a school trip to Hampton Court Palace in 1968: and its use was inspired by the sight of the great trees in the deer park. As the palace was built for Thomas Wolsey perhaps that particular effort to protect English Nature started with a butcher’s son. But it was surely taken up by the young Tudor who came to the throne thanks to the loss of another Arthur. And I recently had some exchanges on the History Message Board with someone with a Welsh ancestry within a different pastoral farming tradition- and a very different tradition of coexistence.

The mention of Arthur brought us back to the Welsh and the warrior code of the Land of the Dragon. As I understand it, the lifestyle of a dragon is not dissimilar to that of , for example, the crocodile. Long periods of quiescence or stupor are punctuated by short periods of frenzied activity. So the periods of quiet are mere interludes- periods of a vague truce when things can be replenished- and not periods of peace.

But talking of peace, your description of your local trees, and your photo of one magnificent specimen about 200 years old, surely says much about the history of Scotland. For 200 years would place this tree back in the time of “improving” Scottish landowners like Sir John Sinclair, who presumably, in importing English ideas of commercial farming, included within that the English tradition of planting such trees. And the suppression of the Highland clans probably made it easier for such trees to survive.

My idea that trees and a fully developed ecosystem need peace to grow has been underlined by my various trips through the Western Front: ten trips last year! My first was on a cycling trip in 1963, when I was appalled by the barrenness of Northern France and the total absence of the kind of great trees that were some of the most important parts of my childhood world. When some years later I worked out the shortest and most direct line between Calais and Dijon, I toured an even greater length of that bloodstained landscape with a frequently tearstained face, reading so many names that were redolent with so much human tragedy and waste. Frequent usage has now brought familiarity; but also the passage of years means that the vegetation is now almost normal after eighty years of recovery.

In 1664 John Evelyn published a book “Sylva: or a Discourse of Forest Trees”, in which he said “truly the waste and destruction of our woods has been so universal that I can conceive nothing else than universal plantation of all sorts of trees will supply and encounter the deficit.” No doubt war had done its worst as military camp fires had burned brightly during the campaigns of the Civil War, or even the march of General Monk down from Scotland. Those immense pikes that were such a feature of warfare at that time also called for large amounts of wood. In fact the earlier Wars of the Roses was perhaps the reason why an Act of Parliament in 1503 said that the forests of England had been “utterly destroyed”.

The English Civil War, however, had arguably only come about because of the impact of James VI of Scotland’s conviction that, having been well-educated in his bookish Scottish childhood, and having ruled Scotland “successfully” since he declared his own “majority” as a teenager, he did not really need to be bound by the English customs that enabled the English to work out and settle for “best possible” solutions. Ascending the English throne seems to have represented a windfall opportunity for the King and his cronies ; and the forests suffered along with the English people. And that included allowing serious encroachment upon England’s forests.

In fact the whole concept of “windfall opportunities” probably extended to the bounty that fell to all ranks of society when great winds blew down mature trees that no-one had the right to cut down. None of it went to waste from the smallest twigs that were bound into bundles to make simple “faggots” = fire-starters, to the great trunks sawn by teams including the “underdogs” who had sawdust raining down on them.

The subsequent Restoration of Englishness after 1660 included that English aristocratic and royal obsession with gardening and landscaping that had its most famous point in the life and career of George III, the King who talked to trees in his madness. I try to talk to them in my sanity, and my conviction that we have a common and equal right to a life on Earth.

But, looking for some evidence of difference between England, Scotland and Wales, for my discussion with Sir Gar Hywel, I found these figures . In 1871 England had 1,314, 316 acres of woodland; Scotland had 734,530; and Wales 126, 625. I would approximate that this meant that England was about twice as wooded per square mile as its neighbours. By 1871, however, Britain was run on principles of Britishness and not Englishness. The English had had to come to terms with a wider world-reality of brute strength and “survival of the fittest”; the need, in short, to be able to act like animals. So the plantation system, that was bringing about revolutionary change in rubber and tea plantations in British “India”, was introduced into the commercial mass production of British timber as one more global commodity.

By 1947 the woodland acreage in England had increased by about 50%. But the acreage in Scotland had almost doubled. And the acreage in Wales had almost tripled. The increase, however, was, as you have mentioned in your description of your own valley, mostly the kind of commercial plantation on non-native, fast-growing species that have been planted for short-term timber production, rather than any attempt to restore “the natural order”.

Like Dr. Johnson a couple of centuries before me, I was struck when I first went to Scotland by the lack of trees, and you may say that England has a great deal “to answer for”. I can see that there would be an argument that England’s neighbours have suffered from her greater force, in the way that the people of Gaza have suffered from the way that the Israelis with the might of their armed forces have responded to the rocket attacks of Hamas. We have inherited a view of “The Celts” that was expressed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Life of Merlin” in the twelfth century. “The madness of the Britons! They take more pride in their continual and abundant riches than they ought! They will not enjoy peace, but are goaded on by a Fury to engage in civil war and family feuds.” Not exactly “Neighbours from Hell”: but historically a nuisance from their inability to keep their lawlessness and violence within their own bounds and borders; and spewing out “refugees” and/or requests for help and support.

I recently started to watch the TV History of Scotland hoping for a more modern view than the one for example in Nigel Tranter’s “The Story of Scotland” (1987); but it seemed to be just more of what another thread on the History Message Board had characterised as “Tartan Romance”. No doubt incursions by the massive forces that various English regimes have been able to send into Scotland- like those of Edward I- did considerable damage to the forests of both Scotland and Wales. But that still leaves the question as to why the English restored their forests after the depredation of war while their neighbours did not.

Your assertion that it had been a mistake to settle down to farm and give up a way of life that only involved three hours work a day, is in line with my received understanding of the way that the “Celtic” tradition involved a very different concept of “Civilization” from the Greek one based upon stability and the settled state, in which humankind attempts to achieve permanent domination over Nature in a specific location.

Nomadic or semi-nomadic lives, based upon herds and transhumance, often see Nature or Mother Earth as a bountiful provider. Such traditions respect the need for Nature to recover from a feeding frenzy as great hordes of men and beasts descend on an area. My impression, however, is that, where such a way of life has been practised for centuries, the landscape is almost inevitably reduced to some form of grassland.

If we take, for example, the case of the “White Highlands” of Kenya that Europeans were delighted to find uninhabited and apparently absolutely perfect for their settlement and exploitation in the great Ground Nut Scheme. Problems arose that led to the Mau Mau terrorism of the Fifties because the Kikuyu tribe had been in the habit of moving into these areas to live every ten or twenty years since time immemorial. Such a sudden and concentrated influx of people and their livestock into a small area must have limited the re-growth of vegetation and the restoration of the natural habitat to those plants animals etc that could thrive of such short life-cycles. This ruled out a re-growth of the trees that had been cut down thousands of years ago. No-one would plant trees that would just be eaten by animals or chopped down by other people for materials or fuel.

Whatever the facts of the matter regarding trees, with the industrial revolution and the globalization of trade and exploitation that came in the nineteenth century, the “bounty of Nature” approach became dominant. The concepts of land ownership that reduced Nature to mere chattel property had emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century [Lord Chief Justice Mansfield being as responsible as anyone]. Mansfield extended it to African slaves in the Zong case, and Europeans extended it in staking their claims to the bounty of the Earth and exploiting it to exhaustion wherever possible. A recent programme on Woodie Guthrie reminded us that the “inexhaustible” “Virgin Soils” of many parts of the world were quite quickly turned into great dust bowls.

Of course deserts have their value. They have often been associated with great spiritual experiences and quiet. But Dr Johnson told Boswell, when he was proposing to visit the desert in North Africa, that he had no need to go that far because there was plenty of desert in Scotland. He later made his famous trip to Scotland where he discovered much to please and charm him.

But as I look out on my garden and see English countryside, even here, just a few miles from the heart of London, I must have more faith in an English Peace approach to sustainability.



[In case this does not work I will post on my HitchHikers Site as well]