Amongst the Heartwood membership are those who take outdoor pursuits seriously. There are more than a few long-distance runners, iron men and extreme cyclists. So, if you are a lumberjack and you really don’t care you will most certainly find kindred spirits in the group. But what attracts someone who is into extreme literature? Or an IT specialist, social workers, retired teachers, engineers, office and store workers and managers?
For me, there was an axe to grind. One of my earliest memories was of my grandfather in the woods felling an oak. It was made clear that I was not even welcome to watch. Although I recall a toy toolkit as a birthday present when I was about five years old, at school, girls didn’t do woodwork. The opportunity to fell a tree didn’t arrive in my case until I was well into my fifties. By then, I was no longer willing to accept that I couldn’t, though that early negativity left me feeling totally inept at handling tools. My initial motivation then was what is known in our family as cussedness; I was going to do it simply because I would no longer accept anyone telling me that I couldn’t.
The company of people who all seem to have retained a child-like enthusiasm for the great dirty outdoors, is a good reason to join in. Founder member, Graham Bowers has childhood memories of spending time outdoors: "When I was a kid, we used to sneak in to the woods and cut stuff down for bonfire night and put mud on the stumps to disguise our illicit activity. Now we are not only allowed to cut trees down, it's actively encouraged! I also enjoy the fact that by thinning the woods, we are making them better."
Another Heartwood member, Ted Tann-Watson, concurs with Graham’s purer motives, when describing his reasons for joining the group: "I went along to the initial meeting (about four years ago), as a way of getting involved in and improving the local environment" he says.
Like Ted, I have been a Heartwood wood-fueller since the group’s inception and my motivation is now also more nuanced. The National Forest is something I take great local pride in and that pride extends to caring for this newly created environment. The Heartwood wood fuel group is founded on an ethos of conservation and as the forest develops will become an increasingly important factor in its preservation. This ethos is a key motivator for many group members.
Economics though, is an equally important factor as Ted Tann-Watson explains: "the fuel has become an important part of our household economy." But it is not only the woodfuellers who benefit economically. The group’s activities help to make woodlands viable for the landowners who were encouraged at the inception of the National Forest, quarter of a century ago, to plant trees on their land. These range from cash-strapped local authorities to private individuals for whom the cost of thinning – essential for long-term woodland health – would otherwise prove prohibitive. Better managed woodlands are more accessible to visitors and encourage a greater diversity of wildlife - so everyone gains.
In Ted’s household as in my own, a green ethos and economics also merge: "the wood fuel plays an important part in the sustainable management of energy in our house - the woodstove is probably the primary source of heat, and, with the use of solar panels and our heat exchanger, means we have no reliance on fossil fuels for domestic energy" he explains.
There is also great satisfaction from seeing a job through from start to finish. Woodfuellers - guided by professionals - are involved in the selection of trees to be felled, the felling itself, snedding or clearing the smaller twigs and branches off the main trunk. We create brash piles from the smaller branches which, as they gradually decay, provide important habitat for invertebrates and the web of creatures dependent upon them. We process the timber for transport. Then at home we cut it into logs, season and burn it as a carbon neutral fuel paid for with our direct labour.
An increasing emphasis on the links between good mental health and the great outdoors provides another incentive for joining the group while the camaraderie is great - only adding to these benefits. As Graham Bowers remarks: "The social side is good, it's been a joy to meet other like-minded people."
Heartwood members benefit too from a programme of training which has included first aid, tree identification, tree selection and the use of power tools. As I reflect on the imminent next stage of my own personal development – chainsaw training - I am certain that I would not have succeeded in felling a single tree without the encouragement of the woodland managers and fellow woodfuellers who guided me through my first tentative forays with a bowsaw.