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.