Friday, 6 February 2009

Winter Woods II: Feather Sticks and River Cliffs

The trail I was following came out in an area of grassy clearings that are slowly being colonised by ash, one of the most virulent species in the woods, as well as clumps of hazel and oak. I had camped in these clearings before and also used them as an impromptu workshop to cut and split ash staves and hazel poles. I had received a small Gransfors Bruks mini hatchet for Christmas and this was my first opportunity to test it, I also wanted to experiment with using magnesium shavings and a ferro-rod with natural tinders to see how easy fire making would be in cold and windy “real” conditions so I got myself in the lee of a large spreading Norway Spruce (Picea abies) and began to cut away the dead lower branches with the hatchet. Despite it’s small size and light weight I was immediately impressed by it’s massive cutting ability. The hatchet cut and split the thick dry lower branches easily and in no time at all I had a sizeable pile of wood, from twigs of cocktail-stick thickness up to sticks as thick as my thumb. Having split these larger sticks I used the axe in a plane action with my hand up close around the head to and carefully feather the split spruce. Again the razor sharp edge produced nice thin and curly feathers and I began to wonder why I had spent so much money on knives over the years when this tool seemed to be able to do just as much. As I had been working the wind had been rattling the dry brown leaves of a young oak tree (Quercus robar) over my right shoulder. With my head down splitting the wood it sounded as if someone was moving behind me and I would look up to see the leaves rattling and clattering their own desiccated language, given life by the cold wind. I gathered a handful of these brown, curling oak leaves and mixed them with a pile of shavings from the dead spruce branches and added a small pile of magnesium shavings from the block. Onto this I began to cast showers of sparks until it blazed into flame, accelerated and magnified by the burning magnesium. If anything the magnesium burned too well and before the small blaze could be coaxed into a manageable fire it had burnt itself out. I repeated the process with the oak leaves and spruce shavings but left out the magnesium. With a lot of blowing and coaxing the embers grew into a flame which I fed with the tiny twigs, then larger twigs and finally the feathered sticks and some cones from the tree. I like to add handfuls of cones to an established fire, they burn down very well and produce a thick carpet of coals perfect for cooking on. But this was no day to sit around a fire so I let my small fire go out and covered the ashes with soil and leaf litter, dampened down with water. I still didn’t feel that I had quite put the hatchet through it’s paces so looking around I saw a largish ash sapling (Fraxinus excelsior), about 20 feet high and already with the thick sock of green moss around it’s base which I tend to think of as the mark of puberty for young ash trees. Kneeling down I began to cut a wide gob into the sapling just above the moss line. The hatchet ate through the green wood like a hot knife through butter and in very little time the sapling, approximately 6 inches in diameter, slowly pivoted to earth on a thin hinge of bark and sap-wood. One stroke of the hatchet was enough sever this connection and as the sapling was light enough to shoulder I lifted it up and began to limb and section it. Very quickly I had 4 sections of about 5 feet and lots of small branches and twigs. I lifted these sections up, slotting them into the thick branches of the large spruce under which I had made the fire. Leaving firewood on the forest floor invites fungus and microbes to begin their work of decomposition, squandering the energy value contained in the wood. Up here in the branches of the spruce the ash logs would dry out nicely and when I returned in the spring or summer they would be ready and waiting for my fire. My chopping and splitting would have spooked any animals in the area so I began to head for a path that would take me out of the woods, along the banks of the river and down into another area of boggy field margins and willow swamps. The path was hard and cold, the sky still its boiling iron colour and the wind was picking up again and blowing across the fields at the edge of the woods as I followed the path into a thick conifer plantation, gloomy and dismal. Rounding a corner in the path I was surprised to see a brown hare (Lepus capensis), walk slowly and somewhat nonchalantly across the path some small distance in front. I have never seen a hare walk so slowly so closely, its gait seemed unnatural and alien, the day-light between its body and the ground accentuated by its crook-legged, almost spider-like movements. I had frozen still at the first sight of the animal and halfway across the path it turned to look at me then carried on, without haste, into the thick spruce at the other side of the path. I checked for tracks on the hard frozen path but although some small marks of disturbance were visible nothing could be seen worth photographing, either on the path or on the carpet of orange needles beneath the towering trees. Through the trees the roar of the river could be heard, and above that the honking of geese. Every flood eats further into the soft earthy cliffs at the rivers edge, toppling trees like matchwood and exposing layers of brown and red soil. Stepping away from the rivers edge in case my weight precipitated a further collapse I carried on down the river bank path, passing anglers and walkers until I came out into a windblown landscape of bare stubble fields and exposed riverbank willows. Here, denied the windbreak and slight warmth of the woodlands I began to wish I’d taken the time to dig my gloves out before setting off and realised that a nice warm polartech Buff was not a slight to ones manliness. I made a mental note to buy one as soon as I got home.
Top: thin and curly feathers
Middle: a thick conifer plantation, gloomy and dismal
Bottom: toppling trees like matchwood

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