Home and Shop Companion 0116
Home and Shop Companion 0116

letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

It has been a whole two years since I started writing these letters, just after the Covid outbreak became an international pandemic, when the uncertainty and fear caused people everywhere to worry about their own futures, their families and friends, and how the economies and our ways of life would stand up. In those early days, in the week when we were advised not to mix, I arranged with a friend to go to his woodland to look at some oak which he had got felled and planked two years earlier. It was my last chance before the inevitable lock-down, to get the timber back to the workshop to make some drawers to go under the new bench I had just finished. It was an enjoyable day out, going through the planks, checking for woodworm and any other defects before carrying it the half mile over soggy fields and a muddy lane back to the car.

My friend’s woodland is an interesting venture, a retirement project for someone who has spent his life teaching biology, as well as being a keen botanist and gardener. The first stage was thinning out the non-native conifers and replanting with other species. Nowadays, the trend is to plant a mix of native trees, which, with the exception of Scots Pine, are all hardwoods, trees that would have grown here before the early settlers after the last Ice Age started modifying the landscape, and which continued to grow where land was not taken for agriculture. But because of the Ice Age and the fact that most European mountain ranges run east to west, blocking the colonisation of species as the ice retreated northwards, the variety of tree species in Europe is relatively small, especially in island Britain. So with the climate on a worrying course, my friend has planted not just native species, but similar species from all over the world, some that perhaps like it slightly hotter, or can stand drought better, seeds procured from specialists from far afield. In effect, it is a big science project, each tree numbered, its type, date and its provenance recorded along with an accurate location, pinpointed by GPS.

In time, we will see which trees are suitable to the changing climate, a valuable contribution for the future. But to my mind, this is the sort of experiment that should have been spearheaded by Governments, starting not five years ago, but thirty years ago. And then I step back from that position because this should have been part of a plan B, because despite its usefulness, it would still have been a poor substitute for plan A, that of reducing fossil fuels, which has scarcely got off the ground even now. Over the last two years, of course, these priorities have been downgraded by the more imminent threat of Covid and all its knock-on effects, as well as, in Britain, the manufactured problem of leaving the European Union and the discord and division it created, and then of course the war in Ukraine. Ukraine may have been a far-off country about which we knew little, but we are learning fast, not just because of the death, destruction, and the huge number of refugees, but also the cost of nitrogen fertiliser, now selling at £1000 per ton [approx. $1300/ton], a rise in the cost of food and a sharp hike in energy prices. Then last week, there was a protest here about the cost of living; quite understandable as prices shoot up, but I can’t help thinking that if local, resilient food production had been promoted thirty years ago and house insulation had been top of the agenda twenty years ago, everything would be so much easier now.

But as my farming and horse mentor used to say, ‘it’s as it is.’

A month or so ago, I heard on the radio about some community groups who were working together to install local small-scale sustainable energy systems, and one young contributor explained why she was involved; “I am passionate about climate change,” she said. Once, it was enough to be competent at whatever you did, then you had to be exceptional, then enthusiastic, but now you have to be passionate. It is today’s buzz word, and if you are passionate about what you do, that is just fine. But for me, I cannot possibly be passionate about climate change; quite the contrary, I am absolutely furious about climate change, furious that something so important to the continued existence of us humans, that new baby your friends sent you a picture of, those kids shouting in the playground and your grandchildren playing in the yard, that their life possibilities are so curtailed by our inertia and complacency. But it is not just climate change that is the problem; add to the list, problems C to Z – microplastics and soil loss, poisoning of landscapes, soil impoverishment and loss of species, the diminution of human rights and actual representation, the pollution of groundwater, the drying up of groundwater, loneliness, disconnection, war and poverty; I am cross about it all!

For me, all these problems are connected, through our collective and individual arrogance and a disrespect towards each other and the world, rooted in the belief that we are above and separate from nature. Mostly, however, I keep my fury in check, not just because I can visualise half of you squirming in discomfort, but because no-one can keep healthy and be angry for forty years. So I am unlikely to go out on the next protest, even though, on the face of it, I am ‘anti’ quite a lot of stuff, I am even anti the proposed new bill that will make it illegal to protest!! But more fundamentally, I do not want to be defined by what I don’t like, by stuff that upsets me, when I might be of more use tending the garden. After all, it is interest, enthusiasm and involvement that really sustains us, call it passion if you will, not banging your head against a policeman’s truncheon.

So that is the path I try to follow; it was why I wanted to find out about working horses thirty-five years ago, but it is not what keeps me doing it. I do it because I like it, but I also appreciate having a philosophical grounding, based on science, personal experience, history, other people’s stories and a process which asks how is it going to affect others, how will it affect me, how will it affect the environment. That doesn’t mean that I always make the best decisions, but over time, I realise that some of what I know is actually quite useful. It may even be critically important, if not earth-shatteringly innovative, because perpetuating beneficial knowledge and skills depends upon people maintaining them, developing them and communicating them.

That is why I have written about daily details of what I have been doing through the year, in hope it may be of some use to someone else. This week I did exactly the same as I did last year, I planted the potatoes with the same horse and the same equipment; except I forgot to bring a bucket for the seed potatoes. So I cut two big holes in the sides of a feed bag to make it into a temporary shoulder bag, and put half a bucket’s worth of potatoes in the bottom, which turned out to be easier than carrying a bucket on my arm as I dropped the potatoes in front of my feet.

Home and Shop Companion 0116

And I did something else for the first time too, with Lucy at least, I plaited up her tail. It was not the fancy plait for the show ring, but a practical way of shortening her tail. And the reason? So I could see the scratch mark left by the bout marker on the ridging plough through her legs, and correct her direction when her front feet wavered rather than when her back feet were already off line. That also meant I could keep the hake central on the plough, the horse and the plough all in one line.

After having the oak for nearly two years, I finally got around to making those drawers for the workshop last month after more pressing matters had put it on hold. The wood was not grade one stuff, so it needed thought and planning to get appropriate size pieces which avoided the shakes and the big knots before planing out the twists. It is the sort of tree that the commercial world would have disregarded as of no value, too small, too irregular to be worth the effort, but it is still good stuff, the toughest wood that this land can produce.

Home and Shop Companion 0116

The drawers are traditional in construction, lapped dovetails at the front, through dovetails at the back, and in keeping with the style, I bought some salvaged Georgian brass handles to finish the job. Honestly, it would have been easier to buy some commercially made drawers, made from softwood, but they would have fallen apart after a few years and unless they had those metal runners would not have slid as well as the fitted oak, planed smooth with a super-sharp blade and lubricated with candle wax. Now they are finished, I smile inside every time I open a drawer, and I know that the English oak, grown for a century or more on the northern side of a hill in south Shropshire, will last maybe as long as three hundred years, its carbon locked away in a useful item. Compared with that lifetime, and my lifetime, the hours spent making it, just like the time spent making potato rows with Lucy, will pale into insignificance, will be forgotten in the rolling of time. But it is time well spent, combining materials and knowledge of the past with the effort of the present, as a mindful and positive route into the future.

Take care,


William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.

Home and Shop Companion 0116

Home and Shop Companion 0116