Tuesday 21 February 2017

Sounding off

I continue to read John Stewart Collis's The Worm Forgives The Plough and am ploughing more slowly through the second of the original pair of books. I reviewed the first a while back. The second book Down to Earth is a bit like the second of Alex Bellos' Popular Maths books: by no means without merit but with a sense of it being the bits which didn't make the cut in the first book. It is mostly about the several years he spent tidying up a few acres of unmanaged woodland. I thought I'd be more engaged with a book about woodsmanship, in which I must build some expertise because we planted a wood that will soon enough require thinning, coppicing and pruning. Maybe it's just nostalgia that made Collis so engaging when he spoke of wrestling a horse-drawn plough through the stubble or building a straw rick in the corner of the just harvested field. I'm not going to do either of those things on this planet in this life.

I learned one extraordinary thing about wood from Collis. In graduate school in America I was sparkle-eyed with admiration with my fellow student Chris Burnett that he could recognise pretty much any tree species native to New England from its Winter silhouette. I could with difficulty recognise many of them from the shape of their leaves although there are many which are like the bird-watcher's little-brown-jobs [LBJs prev] only distinguishable by experts or long experience. I am getting quite good at distinguishing which logs are going up the chimney by the smell. Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna [L above] has a peculiarly medicinal aroma, for example.

Collis asserts that each species of timber sounds different when you chop into it! That has the thunk of possibility because each species is traditionally used for different purposes. The functional utility stems from some advantageous aspect of anatomy. Ash for axe-handles, elm for hubs, oak for barrels, cedar for siding,  That would be Fraxinus excelsior, Ulmus glabrata, Quercus spp. and Thula plicata. Collis's claim gets extra traction because he later quotes Thomas Hardy as saying that his Woodlanders "From the light lashing of the twigs on their faces when brushing through them in the dark, they could pronounce upon the species of tree whence they stretched, from the quality of the wind's murmur through a bough, they could in like manner name its sort afar off". Collis then asks all the local woodlanders of his own acquaintance - 60 years on - if they are capable of this uncanny trick . . . Nope!  I'm clearly going to have to be more awake to my senses when I go down in the woods today but not turn completely credulous.

On a barely related matter, check this out: Every home kneads needs butter. Butter is kneaded elsewhere: with care and attention and these artisan butteristas pay particular attention to the sound the butter makes as it gets squidgy. I'm only half alive when/if  I concentrate merely on how the stuff tastes.

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