A teaching colleague asks what I’ve been up to during the mid-semester break, and looks perplexed and mildly offended by my answer, which throws me in turn. To cover any awkwardness, however unintended, I go on to explain that, while alder isn’t high on anyone’s list of great firewoods it dries very quickly and thoroughly and adds a lovely umber tone to the woodpile. And because it regrows quickly, I never feel the need to fell a tree completely and permanently. “That”, I conclude, a little lamely, “is the principle of a coppice”. She looks immediately relieved. “Coppice! Coppice! I thought you said codpiece!”
I’m still smiling about it the next day when I get back to the wood, especially when I notice that the chainsaw chaps I wear when cutting wood on slithery ground do, indeed, feature a kind of codpiece, though not quite the bejewelled, heart-shaped thing worn by Larry Blackmon of the American group Cameo (which earned them a BBC ban in 1986). I allow myself a little bump and grind to “Word Up!”, as I spark up the saw, until I realise that Joey the post lady has ghosted up the lane silently and is watching me concernedly from the van. Relations with Joey are cordial but understandably reserved, because on the few occasions she falls heir to our rural run, she invariably surprises me in some embarrassing pose or activity. Also, she quite rightly distrusts our geese, Sid and Nancy (after Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen), who are to the avian world what Doberman pinschers are to the canine.
Our wood supply is pretty much dictated by our surroundings. Clear felling of Dalbuie means that there’s a huge amount of spruce and some larch to be scavenged. The latter’s a decent enough wood, semi-hard, and its habit of spitting like a cobra doesn’t matter so much when it’s burned in a stove. We don’t have much choice otherwise, but we get a bit of ash in addition to the alder, and I’m slowly doing surgery on a giant eucalypt which dominates the southern end of our land and now tilts under its own weight. Every time a limb is cut, it seems to ease itself upright and then almost at once puts out a new shoot from low down. Which is kind of proof that only managed trees get to be old trees, and only managed woods get to be ancient woods.
Eucalypt makes phenomenal firewood, but it has to be split when freshly cut. Leave it just a few weeks and even with a heavy maul you will look like Wile E. Coyote wielding the rubber hammer Road Runner just switched on him. Near the bottom of a limb the grain is so twisted that the wood has to be chainsawed rather than split.
I get a bit of fruitwood from a row of geans planted by a previous owner, too close and now overcrowded. And I experimented with a bit of holly, which like ash is supposed to burn well when “green”. I made the mistake of leaving it on the ground for a week or two, only to learn that the bark turns to Evo-Stik. This is the “lime” that was once used to trap birds. Holly burns ok, but with a sullen air of reluctance.
The fieldfares and redwings came back early and are still dashing about in their migratory mass, not yet broken up into territorial clans. There must have been two hundred in the geans this morning. Or one hundred and ninety nine, for the sparrowhawk that lurks among the insulators on a now redundant telegraph pole (we went satellite when it became obvious that phone quality would have been better with two cans and a bit of string) made a successful dash this morning and caught an incautious fieldfare before it got airborne again.
The returning birds, plus a larger than usual number of mistle thrushes, restore some sound to a glen that goes deathly quiet when the warblers leave. We had a good year, with chiffchaffs and willow warblers, garden warblers and even a grasshopper warbler (which can be heard from inside the car, even over the engine), all within a few hundred yards of the house. And we’ve been seeing blackcaps (the males are black toqued, the females reddish brown), who always look somehow look like cast members from Wolf Hall.
The big excitement when I last wrote was whether the raptors we were seeing down the road were relatively common hen harriers or super-rare Montagu’s. Sightings dwindled and became ever more ambiguous. The birds we see now are northern birds who’ve moved in to fill the vacuum. I did have one last look at a departing bird, high and poorly lit, but, yes, the underside did look barred. So I’ll probably never know.
I won’t dwell, but the month has been (dis)coloured by another mink attack, this time on a closed and well-maintained house. It basically chewed its way through the bottom of the pop hole. Nine White Star and White Sussex killed and bled in a night. This time, though, the vicious little ******* decided to make a return visit the next night and walked straight into a vermin trap baited with anchovies. I shot it the next morning, not without a certain psychopathic swagger, which made me feel like Frank Cauldhame in The Wasp Factory.