“And into the forest I go
To lose my mind and find my soul”.
The willow field. It’s where it all begins; the beginning of every job, the beginning of every week – even my first day working for WonderWood began in the willows.
I was born into a farming family, on a gorgeous organic farm where we were told off if we were caught inside during the school holidays. Since I left university where I studied agriculture, I've had various jobs – one which involved working with horses which I adored but which couldn’t have developed into a full time job, and another which involved working in an office doing a job which could have evolved into a wonderful career for me – but, the thing is, you just miss SO much working indoors. Take the changing of the seasons, for example. If you don’t actually see the leaves changing colour and falling from the trees, and if you don’t see the new Spring buds unfurling and excitedly saluting to the crisp blue skies, then you take it all for granted. Working outdoors, you get to see it all; you’re a part of it. That’s what inspired and drove me to start working for Tim. I quit my office-based agricultural job to commit to starting up as a willow weaver, and opening another WonderWood branch (excuse the pun!) in Oxfordshire.
So, day number one began in the willow field. Unbeknown to me at the time, a typical day spent in the willows starts with cutting. This is a two person job which lasts about two hours, with one person chainsawing and the other laying stools of willow down. Jacob currently does the chainsawing in Cambridge and Chris, my partner, now does it in Oxford. Credit to them, it is back breaking work; the majority of this time is spent bent over cutting at ground level. And it’s not an easy job for the person catching up and laying the willow down, either – and when the wind is strong, it pushes you and the willow where ever the hell it wants!
Once cut, you are left with a row of willow rods piled on top of each other. Now for stage two; the sorting. The willow is divided into piles of binders, thin rods, thick rods and extra thick rods, and then they are baled into bundles of 20 rods.
So, day number one – and after a back breaking, windswept two hours of cutting the willow (followed by an equally back breaking time of sorting it) I’m confronted with all of these enormous bundles. The initial sense of freedom and excitement about starting a new job soon evaporated and turned into a tumult of terror and fear of failure as I stared at the first of twenty bundles of willow and thought, “how the hell do I get this onto that trailer?!”My mind told me, “I can’t do this….” Then, I thought, “there's no one else here to do it…” So I manned up, and I got on with it…
When I started working for Tim, the willow we were using was absolutely ridiculous. By ridiculous I mean blooming thick and heavy. At the base, the rods were the thickness of small logs - and once bundled up into 20s it was like trying to lift a ladder with two 20 stone men hanging off either end. Not only does all the blood rush to your eyeballs when you bend down to lift this, but you also have an impending feeling that your innards are going to burst out, or that your back may SNAP. Not really a nice feeling to have. The willow Tim and Jacob are cutting these days is just sensational in comparison. After 18-24 months growth, it’s perfect; straight, whippy, uniform and 2" thick. This makes for easy sorting and easy loading. Happy days for them! My willow in Oxfordshire, however, is not like this….
My willow field is near Bampton in Oxfordshire. The farmer who owns it was one of the first farmers to trial grow biomass willow. Set on a very wet bit of land behind a wood, there is 5 acres of willow which was planted around 10 years ago. The land was so wet it could not be used to crop anything, so the choices were either to leave it to do what it wanted, or to grow willow; a crop that is perfectly suited to wet, boggy ground. Since then the willow was cut for biomass, but the demand has long since gone and the willow has just stood, growing and growing and growing... Then I came along and made the first cut in what must have been 3-4 years...
Nearly two years later and I am making a good dent into the enormous amount of willow. However, last year I cut into a block which has what only can be described 25-30ft high trees. Not rods, - trees. Quite overwhelming when you have cut a row and you then need to sort through the willow, picking out rods for thin and thick bundles…
Sorting through willow is an exhausting job; you use most of your muscles; the whole time is spent bending down and then whipping the “chosen” rod out from under a pile of other rods. It’s very strenuous – and a great muscle-making activity. I told Tim from the beginning of my time with him that I would stop working for him if I got arms as big as his. Mine are slowly catching up, much to my disappointment. Sometimes I catch sight of myself in a mirror and it’s just best to walk away and delete the image from my mind and remember to stand behind people when there's a photo being taken! If my arms get bigger than my boyfriend’s, I may have to quit my job and leave the country. However much I like having an outdoor, “man’s” job, I do not want to look like a man.
Occasionally, I need an extra hand in the willows and I’ll bring in a helper for a day. You can guarantee that person will spend the whole time trying to think of mechanical ways of cutting, laying, sorting, bundling and loading. You can see the cogs working overtime in their brain as the sweat and tears build up. “There must be an easier way,” they plead. “Have you thought of this?” they ask hopefully as they suggest something that just wouldn’t work. The thing is, there isn't a machine that can do it all for you - and even though that’s the reason the “help” never returns for a second day, and even though that’s the reason I could sometimes just cry as I stand in the willows, I do think that's rather brilliant and humbling. The human is not obsolete in our trade; it's hands on all the way from beginning to end. There’s no robot or machine here that can do our work for us. It's a different pace of life in the willows; it takes as long as it takes. You just have to get your head down, get your body into a rhythm and think of something worth thinking about.
If you are in the willows lifting 60 bundles onto the trailer on your own, you need to be a certain type of person. Determined, stupid, and bloody minded. It has to be one of the most ridiculously difficult things I have done and have to do each week. I am not the type of woman that says “women can do anything” anymore; there are actually certain jobs a man is built for and a woman is not…
Despite my moaning, the willow field really is a special place to be. Surrounded by elegant, towering, willowiness, it’s soothing to your soul. Alone with your thoughts and away from any interferences, the only interruption, if any, is from a roe deer, a hare or the odd pheasant. I tend to try and order my thoughts when I’m in the willows; it’s a time to de-clutter and de-stress. I plan adventures in my head and make personal goals and targets for the future. I also sometimes crank my stereo up and dance and mime to T-rex, Bob Marley and Beyonce. Thank goodness I'm far from any roads or foot paths; I imagine I look like a frog that has landed in a bed of stinging nettles!
The changing colours in the willows throughout the year really take my breath away. Autumn is obviously very special; the willow seems to have one last “hurrah!” and turn a shade of zingy lime green with the odd splatter and burst of yellows. It's really spectacular. Then, in the depths of winter, when the ground is crunchy and the air is so fresh and cold it hurts to breath in deeply, the willows take on a whole new look. Tall, spindly, gracious limbs seem to elegantly wave to a stunning, crisp aqua blue backdrop. On clear days the sun glistens through the slender whips and boosts your bodies energy with its goodness . Spring brings with it the furry buds and the curled green leaves of newly sprouting whips; always such an uplifting time of year - full of hope and relief that daylight hours are increasing and we can stay out and play a bit longer (or, work a bit later if Tim gets his way…!)
You notice the very slightest change in temperature when you work outdoors. You notice which way the wind is blowing, the gradual loss of the sun at the end of the day as the seasons decline into winter, and then that precious extra ten minutes you get in the morning as spring begins to emerge again. Being able to witness the change from summer to autumn and winter to spring is an honour; it's something that stops you in your tracks. It’s the realisation that times are changing and nature is in charge. I fully appreciate we can't all work outside, but it's important to look up sometimes from what you are doing and take a look at life and the amazing things going on around you. Just stop and soak it all in…
Willow stool- is the root body of the willow plant. When the rods are cut at ground level they leave around ten stumps. We coppice a willow stool. Similar to a Hazel stool.
Coppicing- to cut back a tree or shrub to ground level periodically to stimulate growth.
Bundle of willow- 20 willow rods bundled and tied up together
Biomass- organic matter used as a fuel, especially in a power station for the generation of electricity
Binders- long straight rods at least 8ft (2.4 m) long and typically 1 inch (25mm ) at the base.