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Ben Short – An Uncomplicated Life

My life used to be complicated; it is no longer so. I left London over half a decade ago, having lived and worked in its hothouse environment for nearly fifteen years. It had left me mentally and physically unwell.

From the moment I turned away, I knew only one thing: that my life would be simpler. Today, a day’s work can still put a dent in me. But it is a good dent, the dent of an honest day’s work out of doors. And simplicity? Well, the materials with which I make my living couldn’t be less complicated: wood, earth, air and fire. For now I deal in elements; I am a charcoal burner.

My working life is almost exclusively spent in the woods and copses close to where I live, harvesting ‘over-stood’ hazel coppice to convert into charcoal. Cutting the overgrown coppice not only yields wonderful material to burn, but also does huge service to the wood itself. The hazel stools, some of them hundreds of years old, are saved from rupturing and dying through their weight and the coppice is brought back into rotation.

As the underwood is cut, sky appears. Where vision was frustrated by a black latticework of branches, now clear air. So very satisfying: neat piles of coppiced poles and drifts of hazel. No longer an errant copse, a derelict coppice, but once again a working wood.

Coppicing also allows light and the sun’s warmth back onto the woodland floor so that bluebells, anemones and other flowers, long-dormant reappear. They bring the insects and, in turn, the birds, so that a coppiced wood is a more bio-diverse wood, a happier wood. I hope the old men who once worked it might turn over in their chalky graves and think ‘Thank Goodness, at last, they’ve done it properly once more.’

I had first been introduced to charcoal burning as an eight year old boy. I grew up on the rolling chalk of the Hampshire Downs – classic coppice country. A school trip took us to a wood, just before Christmas, 1979. It is a memory which has remained vivid, etched in my mind. For there was a magic in that wood; the magic of men living and working in Nature, practising an ancient craft, whilst the rest of society hurtled towards the 1980’s and the escalating madness of the modern age. Even as a child I felt this, an intuition that such a life was more beautiful.

In my early teens, I came across a man living and working in the wood which lay just beyond our farm. He was spending the winter cutting the hazel which grew beneath the ash and oak. He lived in the back of his car and kept a tamed wood mouse up his sleeve. He seemed a man out of time with modernity; a man who had deliberately cast himself as a guardian of the old way, despite the privations and loneliness that such a life can bring.

To me, he was doing a job that had real meaning; a job where a man’s hands are in contact with natural, unplaned wood. With soil. With dirt. Not the anodyne surface of a keyboard. A job where a man’s eyes watch every stroke of his billhook and notice the first sign of Spring on the blackthorn, rather than being set hard on a computer screen.

Such work gives a man clarity. The modern man may turn his nose up to such rough labour and think our woodsman stupid, ignorant, not good enough for anything ‘better’. But they’re wrong. For this man possessed a quality that can only be described as a stillness; it was palpable, and it shook me. For in his stillness was real wisdom and peace, the ability to see things just as they are. And so I look to my woodland work to teach me.

Before the invention of the steel ring kiln, charcoal was made in woodland ‘clamps’, the cut material stacked upright around a central flue and covered with sieved earth to restrict the amount of oxygen getting into its centre. That was skilled work. It also required a continuous watch be kept, to control any hot spots that may have developed. I have spoken to several charcoal burners who have attempted such ‘earth burns’. To a man they say it is brutal work. Every generation gets softer.

Yet there is skill to modern charcoal burning. To know where to site the kiln and how to lay it. To know when, exactly, to close it down. To understand the vagaries of wind and rain, the different qualities in soil, and how this will affect a burn. But what is most impressive for those who do it for a living is the doggedness required – it is hot, hard, physically-exacting work. And it doesn’t pay much.

It is a life which puts you in your place. It says, ‘Do this and you’ll be busy, employed. You’ll also be released from the madness of the modern workplace. You’ll feel the satisfactions of working in Nature and, often, real beauty. But you’ll also feel tired, numb, dirty and sometimes even lonely.’

So I return to the idea of simplicity. I see in what occurs during a burn, a reflection of what I have done in my own life. Charcoal burning is the reduction of wood down to its most basic element: carbon. During the burn, all the volatiles, the impurities and toxins, are burnt off, extracted; black wood tar literally runs out of the kiln’s air-ports, pooling on the ground.

Leaving my old life was a similar casting off, a purging of all the bad stuff. And like the charcoal which is almost weightless, what is left is lighter. The wood loses all its heaviness. So, hopefully, has the man.

 

 

Ben Short is a charcoal burner, woodsman, hedge layer and writer. He lives and works in West Dorset. This essay originally appeared in The Countryman and is reprinted here courtesy of the author.

 

8 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Naomi Raczreply
April 05, 2014 at 09:04 AM

Hhm. I can’t help but take question with the notion that working in front of a computer is necessarily somehow less ‘honest’ or ‘meaningful’ than being a charcoal burner (or presumably other outdoor jobs). Of course, I can think of many jobs that involve working in front of a computer for ‘dishonest’ companies! But I spend my working days in front of a computer, working for an environmental organisation, and I don’t see what I do as less valuable or honest. You also don’t need to work outdoors all day to, for instance, notice the first signs of Spring or the changing of the seasons. It is possible to live in a large city, as I do, and do a desk job and still feel connected to nature. Perhaps not quite in the same scale as someone who lives in their car in a coppice (and has a pet wood mouse up their sleeve!). But it is still enough to bring that sense of stillness into my life. ‘Nature’ is there to be seen, even in a large city, it’s a question of making the effort to notice it.

Simon. Smithreply
May 16, 2014 at 03:05 PM
– In reply to: Naomi Racz

I can see both sides, and both are equally valid. I do spend a lot of time outdoors whenever possible, and do feel something of a ‘purging’ or ‘casting off’ off my day-to-day life when out there as Ben suggests. Like Naomi though, I spend my working life indoors, but don’t let this hamper my connection to the outside world. There is definitely a way of balancing the two, as illustrated by Esther Woolfson’s book Field Notes from a Hidden City.

Suzanne Lennonreply
February 16 at 10:02 AM
– In reply to: Naomi Racz

Hi Naomi, I don’t think you have really grasped what is meant by “honest” work. It’s not that there’s anything “dishonest” about working with a computer…. it’s more a “feeling” of being true to who you really are…. honesty to your own self. 🙂

Plethi Projectreply
April 05, 2014 at 11:04 AM

The systems we live in are complicated and they make the option of on-off binary decisions difficult to achieve.

I liked the way this piece (and Naomi’s comment) showed how you can change from a complicated emotionally impoverishing life to a complex enriching one. I liked the way this piece (and Naomi’s comment) proposed a release from the alienation and anomie that is sometimes the result of Modernity and Post Modernity.

There any many roads to authenticity (being who you are) and what this piece (and Naomi’s comment) say is ‘be in the world’ in ways that make sense to you.

Hohbreply
August 28, 2015 at 06:08 PM

Best. Charcoal. Ever.

Your brave decision to leave the rat race for the good life directly led to perfectly cooked sausages and steak on my BBQ while camping with my family.

Happy kids. Happy daddy. Happy mummy.

Thank you.

Richard Ganderreply
October 12, 2015 at 05:10 PM

Inspiring article Ben. Keep well, and stay true to yourself. All the very best, Rich

Jusreply
October 21, 2016 at 10:10 AM

Just read the country file article Ben you sound like an amazing person with true values! I’m totally inspired by your thoughts!

Suzanne Lennonreply
February 16 at 10:02 AM

I totally understand you Ben…. we’re definitely on the same page. I had a similar experience in my childhood meeting proper “country” characters in a small village, and being so inspired by them. I spent majority of my childhood playing in the woods, and recalling those days always brings a sense of being connected…. I have longed for the courage to do exactly what you have done! I know I would love the life as I am never happier than when I’m carving, doing pyrography or having bonfires! The woods and ALL that goes with them. Mind you, a charcoal kiln does make your eyes water! 🙂 I would really appreciate some advice on how you took that step…. if you can? Thank you for re-inspiring me!

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