His breath pulls hard on the cold air; sharp droplets of heat and mist drift in the wind. Determined, but struggling hard, and aided by two sticks, he has pulled his way up from the car some 200 metres below the steep muddy track. His smile breaks the atmosphere of uncertainty and concern, and slipping free from his helpers, he stumbles the last few steps and rests heavily in a comfy chair by a warm smoking camp-side fire.
Alan is a beautiful man; a warm smile, cheeky grin and effervescent enthusiasm that enthrals everyone he meets, but today, he is more silent. Hit by a stroke only months before the last time I saw him he was lying part paralysed in hospital. But now just months afterwards he is in the wood again, sitting around the campfire grinning and smiling, his eyes glinting with mischief and a quiet determination. His wellbeing is testament to his determination and steely resolve, but also the deep love of his family and a functioning health care system.
Prior to the stroke Alan was a regular at our woodlander volunteer days, cutting coppice and restoring woodland and making all manner of crafts. He had brought the first green woodworking pole lathe and set it up for others to use, attending in all weathers and conditions. It’s great to see him around the fire again and the simple nature of drinking tea and sharing food, reminds me of just how well the woods can heal.
We bought the run down derelict shack, cider orchard and 52 acres of wet unworked coppice woodland in west Dorset after years as an environmental activist, now searching for a place to make a home and a respite from an increasingly frenetic and sick world. The path has been a long one: seven years of hard graft, many worries but so many joys, the biggest of which has been raising a family, sharing the woodland with other people and seeing how well it can heal.
Many hundreds of people from all walks of life, ranging from the screen-addicted teenagers, to elderly retirees; couples, busy professionals and stumbling toddlers, have journeyed through over the years. They all have one thing in common - they are nervous and awkward when they first arrive, often shy and apprehensive. Yet, when they leave their souls seem lighter and rested; they are smiling, talking and seem more at peace.
Nature is a healing force
The nurturing environment of the fire, the good oxygen and wood itself has held them for the day, whether they have stoked the fire, cut trees or made crafts; their time in Nature has been healing. It is unequivocal; spending time in Nature - and in our wood - makes people feel happier, rested and stronger, and our volunteers give testimony to that. But outside the wood, the world is skewed: Conservation charities, local planners and government policy and subsidies all work together to support the narrative that woods are best left alone; that people should be let in, but then go home at the end of the day.
A prime example is the National Trust which has just closed the forest kindergarten in Toys Hill Kent (Forest School Eviction) citing damage to wildlife from preschool children. Really? What damage can small children inflict compared to developers, rising carbon emissions or the spraying of a plethora of synthetic and toxic herbicides and pesticides ? In the midst of a global planetary emergency symptomatic of rampant capitalism, grinding inequality, a subprime economy, endemic poverty, and an obesity and mental health crisis with sick people and a sick planet, we need to seriously rethink how we reconnect people to land and Nature to allow both to heal.
Whilst government rhetoric about supporting people in Nature remains strong, the reality is very different: If I was a dairy farmer I could get public funds to build new sheds, increase greenhouse gases, pollute the streams and turn my fields in to rye grass mono-crop deserts, grow maize and produce extra slurry in the name of production. As a sheep farmer, I could get grants to keep the woolly land maggots chomping their way through any diversified plant regrowth, smoothing the hills to a green upland desert. Conversely, the grants for woods in the UK are entirely focussed on production and biased towards forest agents, conservation bodies and large estates that have the time, energy and capacity to capture and manage large public grants.
I can get money to shoot squirrels and deer and manage my woodland tracks, but there is no support to bring people back into woods. Other than visiting, people living and working in woods is an anathema to the forestry commission, government bodies, planning agencies and conservation charities. Living in and working woodlands is the antithesis of many of the conservation charities and planners aims, indeed the likelihood of securing a house, based on working a woodland, is very slim and actively opposed.
The planning policy makes it near impossible for people to live and work in woodlands, testified by numerous failed applications. The dominant narrative from public bodies is leave the woods well alone, go ape for the day but go home by night. Yet numerous studies show that sustainably-managed woodland can lead to enormous co benefits for biodiversity; new flushes of insects, hidden bluebells and woodland flowers, healthier, happier people, less climate change impacts and the prospect of an economic income, so, in essence, a win-win situation.
It’s a major struggle
But the powers are stacked against emerging woodland champions seeking to work and manage woods. It’s true that some woodland owners buy woods to hide in, seeking sanctity from others through exclusion and isolationism - Keep Out Private! And although there are many other dynamic visionaries seeking to turn woods into places for people and wildlife, the task is a major struggle. Limited returns on woodland products, an actively blocking planning framework, a lack of security, resources and capacity are all factors causing small woodland enterprises to fail.
In part, the narrative of wilderness, rewilding and conservation sanctity promotes human exclusion from woodlands. Yet our woodlands have not been wild for millenia - all of them have been worked hard in the past where nothing was wasted. Before fossil fuels, and the industrial revolution, our woods were like giant ecologically-balanced factories sucking up carbon and pumping out oxygen and delivering a range of forest products to fuel our homes and industries across the Nation, plus producing timber for our ships and global trade.
Our woods have a history of being worked and often negatively, excluding certain species in preference of others, but in the last 120 years and the advent of fossil fuels they have fallen silent, overgrown and unworked, unloved and shut up as dark retreats from modern society. Happily, that can change - if a sustainable woodland revolution is nurtured supporting pioneers to bend the rules and bring woods and people to life again.
Our own wood once housed five families working the woodland, albeit not in some form of surrealist utopia, for woods have always been wet, hard work and the workers often poor, surviving in difficult conditions. But I am not arguing for a return to a peasant-fuelled capitalist industrialisation but a bigger vision, one that encompasses getting people back into woods, restoring local fuel wood to local economies (and thus displacing the imported coal, oil and gas) and sucking up carbon whilst producing local timber and crafts from our communities, rather than exploiting forests far away.
We need to change the narrative
To do this, we must change the narrative and the frame and allow people to live and work in woodlands. Woodlands can provide sanctity and solace for people to refresh from the burden of our modern, fast-paced world. Indeed, there is a revival in forest schools, which is great, after all getting children back into woods where our DNA resides is only logical in this crazy world. But we need to go further; we need to break the mould and bring in everybody from the elderly, to the stressed, from those recovering from strokes and other illnesses to those feeling the head strain of the modern world.
People should be living, working, and thriving in woodlands, building on the principles of permaculture and agroforestry, practising sustainable off-grid living, with the full support of governments and policy. Checks and balances can be put into place to meet social, economic and conservation targets and it needs to be recognised, and shared, that working woodlands improves biodiversity numbers and diversity, as well as delivering a range of other co benefits. With the upcoming changes brought on by Brexit chaos, it’s time for conservation charities and the Government to review the isolationism of woodland management and seek a new dynamic vision that embraces people living in working woodlands.
Alan is not alone in using the wood; we have an ex policeman detoxing his retirement through woodland exposure and a young lad doing his Duke of Edinburgh award. With a conducive environment, vision and a lot of hard work many other woods could be returning back to thriving centres like ours. Such woods can play an active role for all of those who have been unwell, who are tired, hurt or just in need of some headspace. The wood attracts a diversity of people and as we open and carefully manage the woodland we also restore the biodiversity and people. Plant numbers and birdlife is increasing and a thriving local firewood round helps pay the bills and spread the word.
I will keep welcoming Alan and other friends back to the woods in hope that we can inspire a new generation of visionaries who will open more woods to being worked, lived in and conserved.
Alan’s smile says it all - it’s time for fireside tea and biscuits.
About Kit Vaughan
Kit Vaughan is a working woodland owner who has lived at Prime Coppice working woodland in Dorset for the last seven years with his wife and young family. They manage the wood as a way to restore the environment, and as a space to share with people. Kit was raised in Tanzania, Germany, Norway and later in London. He rebelled and left school at 16 with no qualifications spending time as a gamekeeper, barman and restaurant worker and illegal migrant worker in the USA, before returning to the UK and studying agriculture and sustainable development. After gaining his MSc in Environmental Conservation he left to work in sub saharan Africa on rural development and environment issues, living first in Zimbabwe and then alone on Namibia’s skeleton coast for five years. Kit returned to the UK and ran the WWF climate impacts team and then became the Director of CARE International’s climate programme. After ten years, he left the climate movement having borne witness to the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks and the green washing of the Paris Climate Accord. Disillusioned at the co-opted nature of NGOs and the environmental and inequality crisis, he has since been focussing his efforts on restoring the Prime Coppice woodland. The wood forms the basis of his environmental therapy to manage the challenges of an increasingly broken world and to support people and the environment to work closely together and heal each other and the world around them.
Photo: Christian/Creative Commons