Interview – Robert Penn

There’s a lot going on in Rob Penn’s book “The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees”. Timber technology, woodland management, the history of tools, weaponry and sporting goods. Above all, it’s a tribute to mankind’s ongoing relationship with wood. Lyrically descriptive of materials and process, it made me venture back to the workshop and the timber yard with a fresh perspective.

I managed to trap him indoors on a beautiful summer’s day to discuss his work.

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Robert Penn and Friend

How did “The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees” come about?

My adult association with trees came when I moved here, to the Black Mountains in South East Wales, about fifteen years ago and realised that I wanted an association with the landscape. I didn’t want to be a farmer but I did want to connect with the landscape – a very obvious way was to get involved with trees. So we set up a community woodland group – the house that I live in has got a small woodland attached to it and immediately I fell into producing firewood for the house. The community woodland group was operational in a local farmer’s wood which we began to bring back into management – it was a derelict wood which hadn’t been touched for forty or fifty years. As a journalist, that led to me writing about trees.

When the government tried to sell off the public forest estate in 2010, the newspapers that I wrote for suddenly looked around and couldn’t find anyone who lived outside the M25 and knew anything about trees. That led to making a TV programme about bringing a derelict, ancient woodland back under management – that was called “Tales From The Wildwood”. One of the things that we wanted to do during the course of that was to look at the value of hardwood timber. This part of the country, as you probably know, is very heavily populated with Ash – along the Welsh borders, into the early part of the 20thcentury a huge volume of very high quality Ash was grown. So we thought we’d take an Ash tree and see if we could use that – and get it made into things.

At the sawmill, I was loading some planks of Ash into the car and, apropos of nothing, Will Bullough (the sawmill owner) made the point that those planks were basically valueless. If you think about the time, energy and cost put into the woodland management – we felled the tree, we had it extracted by horse as it was a very steep-sided wood, we loaded the log onto the back of a truck that’s driven to the sawmill, the sawmill has then processed that log into planks – at that point they are still almost valueless. Then, David Colwell brought back a chair that he’s made from those Ash planks that was so exquisite that I couldn’t afford to buy it. I thought, that’s just extraordinary that you can take valueless planks and make them into something exquisite.

I started reading more about Ash – the part that it had played in the advancement of the human species in temperate parts of the world. I came to understand very quickly that it was arguably the tree upon which we had become most reliant and the tree species that we have developed the most intimate relationship with over the course of human civilisation. That’s quite a claim – but think about the role it’s played in tool handles, take that as one example. We know that Neolithic carpenters preferentially used it for tool handles, six thousand years ago. They came to understand through trial and error that it broke less often than oak or beech, say. It’s been used for tool handles ever since. It’s only in the middle of the 20thcentury with the advancement of plastics, light metal alloys and later the proliferation of the use of carbon that Ash falls from human consciousness.

I thought that it’s the most incredible story that has never really been told. Oak dominates the public consciousness in this country because it’s made into stately furniture which is locked in rooms and passed from generation to generation – and, of course, it was made into Royal Naval ships which created the British Empire. Actually, Ash is the most common tree that we as a species have handled in this part of Europe over the course of civilisation. Whether it be for firewood, as a tool handle, felloes on a wheel, sports equipment…it’s the most extraordinary story which hasn’t been told. Ash Dieback comes along and you think this story really needs telling as we need to raise the status of this tree in the public consciousness again. Not just with Ash but with all trees – the more we value them, the more inclined we are to look after them as they grow.

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Refectory Table and Benches – made by John Spivey from Ash provided by Rob’s tree

 

The book contains some excellent descriptive writing about various crafts – have you been tempted to take any up yourself since writing it?

 I wish I had two lives and a lot more time! What do I do?

There was an old boy who lived round here, he very sadly passed away two years ago, who was the most amazing woodsman. He helped me set up the community woodland group. He’d gone primary school in clogs made of Alder in the late 1930’s. His knowledge and fascination with all types of trees was amazing. He was the most amazing conservationist. He’d never read a book, everything was empirical experience. He taught me how to make walking sticks, so I make walking sticks.

Through the community woodland group we run various courses – bowl making, spoon making, chair making. I’m on the periphery of those – I always seem to be involved in organising the days rather than getting my hands dirty and learning the craft. I’ve got various plans to make chairs but never got round to it! I’ve done a little bit of bowl carving on a pole lathe with disastrous results. Every time I think “that’s it, I’ll spend the afternoon making a spoon”, I realise that actually I’ve got half a tonne of firewood to process with an axe so I’d better get on and do that instead.

At one point I thought the book would be about me making all these things, then I realised that what was interesting about the research, and what would be much more interesting for the reader than me learning how to make these things, was the extraordinary knowledge and intimacy that the artisans I met had with this natural material – that’s far more interesting then me screwing a spoon up, several times. Sometimes I’m criticised, as the author of the book, for not actually making anything –actually, it’s far more interesting to learn about the relationship the people who do the making have with the wood, rather than me.

 

There’s a sad but necessary postscript to the book about Ash Dieback and also the Emerald Ash Borer in the US – is there anything we can do to prevent or mitigate such tree diseases?

 

I think there is, but I has to be done at a national, international and political level. It’s about governments finding the will to impose biosecurity regulations once again. If you look at the history of biosecurity, it hasn’t always been a disaster. Round about the middle of the 19thcentury, when steel-hulled ships driven by steam began to cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the spread of pests and pathogens that affected not just trees but all plants began to rise. Towards the end of the 19thcentury intelligent governments said “OK, this is a problem, we need to do something about this” and put in place biosecurity regulations, which to some extent mitigated the problem. Over the course of the 20thcentury we tore those up, because the greed of international trade took precedent. That was a major error which we’re now fighting to come back from. The right noises are being made, I think we’re back on the right track, but it’s too late. If you look at what Ash Dieback has done here, and even more dramatically what the Emerald Ash Borer has done in the USA, it’s devastation on an incredible scale. The UK government has a list of pests and pathogens which might come to this country at any time – that list is seven or eight hundred long, and number one on that list is the Emerald Ash Borer. It’s in the USA, it’s in continental Russia and it is heading this way. If it gets to Western Europe, Ash Dieback will look like child’s play.

So what can we do? On going into woodland, clean your boots – generally speaking, that sort of stuff is pissing in the wind, it’s not really going to make a difference but it makes people conscious of pathogens and how they’re moving around the country – it’s an initiative which gets people to think about these things. But what we actually need to do is lobby our MPs and say “plant biosecurity is now a major issue and could you take it up”.

 

Back to a domestic level – what’s your home like?

I live in a little farmhouse in a wooded valley on the edge of the Black Mountains, in Southeast Wales. The woodlands that surround me are very, very old. The woodlands belong to a farm so there’s a lot of fruit trees, lots of ash and beech, and a lot of alder which grows well.

 

Finally, what projects are you currently working on?

Lots of things going on, but the main project is I’m now writing a book about the history of bread. I’m growing a field of wheat which we’ll harvest at the end of the summer. I’ll thresh it in the barn at home, mill it in the local watermill and then leaven it and bake it at home.

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Edenwood Canoe Paddle

“The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees” is available through the links here.

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Author: Finn Koefoed-Nielsen

I design and build furniture from sustainable hardwoods - info@finnkn.com

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