Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | April 6, 2013

Seeing Trees

As an anthropologist, I love hearing the diverse perspectives that people have about aspects of our world. How we learn to understand and interpret our environment is very much dependant on our interaction with it and the most commonplace things can be experienced in very different ways by different people.

Take trees, for example. During my time in Caithness, I’ve worked alongside foresters who approach trees with a chainsaw and a critical eye, looking out for the risks inherent in felling windblown conifers; I’ve talked with the owner of a woodland who manages his trees to promote biodiversity; I’ve volunteered with a forest ranger who uses the trees as a tool to promote learning, health and social skills in young people; I’ve spent time in the Flow Country where trees are seen by many people as ‘out of place’; and, most recently, I’ve been learning about the very intimate relationship between a traditional woodsman and his trees.

As part of an initiative developed by the Community Woodland Association to reconnect people with Scotland’s native woodlands, Mike Ellis of Helmsdale Charcoal and Coppice has been delivering a series of five day, OCN- accredited courses covering the foundations of coppice management, charcoaling, and green woodworking. Mike believes that an innate connection has existed between people and woodlands for thousands of years and that our woods continue to have a beneficial effect on the human psyche, as is evidenced by the large numbers of people who regularly visit and take comfort from them. He is concerned that the decline in traditional woodsmanship has led to an accumulation of neglected and dying woodlands throughout Britain. He says, “It is essential that we care for the health of our woodlands as they play an important role in human wellbeing. I feel strongly about the value of these courses as there are so few people able to manage a woodland, so it is crucial that we increase those numbers before the craft of the traditional woodsman is lost altogether”.

One of Mike's more ambitious greenwood projects.

One of Mike’s more ambitious greenwood projects.

In February, I was lucky enough to take part in one of the CWA funded courses. We began by developing a more detailed understanding of coppicing, the ancient craft of cutting back trees on a cyclical basis to promote additional regrowth, thus producing a sustainable source of timber product. We made our way to the Marel, a stretch of nearby woodland that Mike and his team of regular local volunteers have been given permission to restore to working coppice after many years of neglect by landowners. Here, in the midst of the trees, Mike talked us through the history and decline of coppicing and appropriate coppice management and restoration techniques.


Splitting wood

Whilst at the Marel, we used traditional tools to harvest and dress several trees, whose wood we would use to make charcoal. Over the next few days, we experienced the magic and anticipation of charcoal: we learnt how to load and fire a charcoal kiln, and how to judge the smoke using a mixture of visual and tactile clues in order to control the burn. The weather had conspired against us, blowing up a blizzard on the day we lit the charge, so our sense of excitement when we finally opened the kiln twenty four hours later to find that we had created the lustrous black charcoal was immense. Never mind the OCN qualification: sitting down to sizzling sausages cooked on the brazier over our very own homemade charcoal was reward in itself!


Homemade charcoal

We made charcoal!

Sizzling Sausages

The third area of learning focused on green woodworking skills. From the properties of different tree species and their suitability for green woodworking techniques, to specialised tools and their maintenance, to undertaking a project from planning and design to final product, we were kept busy applying our new skills. I managed (with a lot of help!) to create a beautiful little three-legged stool. The legs of the stool are cut from a length of Western Hemlock, from which I stripped the bark, smoothed the timber and whittled the tips using a shave horse and coopers drawknife. The seat of the stool is a large ring of Sitka – a species not readily used in green woodworking. I used an axe, a chisel and a drawknife to remove the bark and rot and to round off the edges. I still need to dry, sand and oil the stool, but here’s what it looks like so far:


As a result of Mike’s tuition, I will never be able to look at a tree or timber product in the same way again. I will always be alert to the qualities or affordances of the wood, and to the extensive labour involved in realising a product. On this occasion I set out with the explicit intention of exploring a novel way of relating to my environment, but these transformative experiences can be part of everyday existence.

Do you have examples of how you have come to understand your environment in a particular way? Perhaps you have a hobby or an occupation that leads you to a unique perspective about some aspect of the environment? Or perhaps you share your understanding with family, friends or teachers? Please feel free to add your comment below.



  1. Wauw, I enjoyed reading this. Thank you, Lou!

  2. Interesting work. Thanks.

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