I’m going to start posting more about my own wood at https://centurywood.uk and probably most of the forestry and rewilding posts I make in the future will be there too. The first post I’ve made is about ride rewidening and a bit about coppicing by hazel and poplar.
I don’t know about you, but poetry at school was a hit and miss business. Looking back, it feels as if a lot of verse was thrown in my general direction, some of which has stuck and some of which just bounced off – even when committed to memory overnight to placate a teacher. W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is one that stuck, and a couple of years ago I realised its connection to hutting and to Walden in particular. The poem is short enough to quote in full here:
Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee, And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Until I came back to the poem a couple of years ago, I remembered the island but not the cabin. Perhaps as a boy I imagined escaping from the pavements of my own city to the island, but as a man I think ahead to shelter and the cabin. Yeats thought even further, to food, with his nine bean rows and bee hive. Rereading it I then saw the connection to Thoreau’s account of two years living in a hut by a lake, in “Walden”. Thoreau grew his own food, and sold the surplus to pay for other necessities. He talked at length about cultivating rows of beans in particular:
Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.
Which is more prosaic and more extensive than Yeats’ nine rows of beans, but represents the voice of experience!
Some digging of my own turned up passages in Yeats’ autobiography which spelt out his childhood connection between Walden and the island, starting with a conversation with his father:
When I said to him, echoing some book I had read, that one never knew a countryside till one knew it at night he was pleased (though nothing would have kept him from his bed a moment beyond the hour); for he loved natural things and had learnt two cries of the lapwing, one that drew them to where he stood and one that made them fly away. And he approved, and arranged my meals conveniently, when I told him I was going to walk round Lough Gill and sleep in a wood. I did not tell him all my object, for I was nursing a new ambition. My father had read to me some passage out of Walden, and I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood where I meant to sleep. (Part I, xvii, p.43)
Years later walking on the grey pavements of London in 1888, he remembered the island and composed the poem:
I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree, my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. (Part II.I, xv, p.94)
One of the impulses of hutting is not just to go to more natural places, but to go back to them. Repeatedly. To maintain a connection to them, even when walking the grey pavements of cities. To carry part of them inside you, “in the deep heart’s core”.
In 1845 Henry David Thoreau built himself a hut beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts and started the process which led to “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” in 1854. This book has gone on to become a classic of American literature, held up by advocates of self-reliance, resistance to the power of the State, naturalism, and conservation; and studied by generations of school children. Even in the UK, it’s often quoted, with its mixture of philosophy and the outline of Thoreau’s efforts to lead a self-reliant life from the land around his hut.
I’ve been meaning to write about Walden since I started this blog, but the more I thought about it, the bigger the task became. Walden is a treasury of ideas connected to hutting and nature, and a single post or even a sequence written at the same time won’t do it justice. So instead I made a page about Walden and will make blog posts as I add material to it. For now that page has a collection of key passages I selected while reading the book, with a focus on hutting.
A few of them give you a flavour of his intentions:
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.
Walden Pond is now a Massachusetts state park and visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year. There is a reconstruction of Thoreau’s hut near the car park and the footprint of the original hut is also marked out.
Interesting article by Geoff Beacon on the possible return of plotlands and prefabs, and the background to how we got into the current house price mess stoked by the planning system:
Just imagine, as we do in the York Plotlands Association, that individuals could buy a plot of land for, say, three or four times its a agricultural value (e.g. £2,000), be given planning permission for that plot and put a home of their choice on it. For the individual that would cut out the £50,000 to £100,000 planning gain that ends up on the price of their new home.
In 2014 I made one of the most popular posts here: “Humberston Fitties: magical but under threat“, describing one of Britain’s few remaining plotland sites on the north east coast of Lincolnshire. It was under threat from the continuing uncertainty surrounding the council’s intentions, and the possibility it might be sold to the adjacent commercial caravan park. Since then, things have just got worse and some of the chalet owners have put out a request for help.
The chalet owners have formed the Humberston Fitties Community Interest Company and have offered £1.5 million to the council, who are determined to sell the long lease for the whole site. The adjacent caravan site (Thorpe Park) had first refusal but declined to buy it. Problem solved? No, the council don’t want to sell the long lease to the chalet owners. (Who are voters and council tax payers and people who spend money in the local economy remember.) Instead they are in secret negotiations with an undisclosed company, believed to be another commercial caravan site company.
This seems unbelievably bloody minded and high handed by the council.
I had this email from the C.I.C. yesterday and wrote this blog in response:
NELC put the leasehold up for sale in Oct 2016, inviting expressions of interest. Our Community Interest Company submitted an offer to buy at the asking price of £1.5 million. NELC have very regrettably rejected our offer, in favour of their ‘preferred bidder’, who is believed to be a commercial static caravan site company.
Given the bizarre secretive way in which our landlord NELC are going about things, we as a community really do fear the worse. As such, and given that we feel that we may well be about to loose this much loved piece of Utopia that happens to be a Designated Heritage Asset, we are trying to increase awareness of what is going on across the length and breadth of this land, by whatever means (and media) possible.
Another positive story, from last week’s Observer:
Now a ‘hutting’ revival is predicted after the Scottish government signalled that later this month it will change legislation to exempt huts from building regulations, allowing people to put up these most simple of second homes in the countryside wherever they can rent or buy a plot of suitable land, subject to planning permission.