Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Bodging, Trees and Butterflies

Today was an interesting day. I am someone who thrives on new experiences, and there were many to be found. The wardens at my block of flats had organised a day trip to a local park for residents and filled it with activities.

First we were to be tutored in the art of 'bodging', the working of wood using tools unchanged since the days of the Tudors. It was humbling to attempt the manufacture of a candlestick using techniques used in the construction of the ships that sank the Spanish Armada in 1588. While blades were made from metal, the main structure of the tools were made from wood. There was a pleasing symmetry in working wood using wood.

We took a hunk of green wood and split it using a special kind of axe, one that is flat on one side to ensure a straight cut. This was struck with a rough wooden mallet to produce a chunk of wood that would be shaped using a two handled knife similar to the 'mezza luna' used by Italian chefs.

An example of this is shown above. The purpose of the exercise is to turn the wood into a circular shape suitable for turning on the foot-powered lathe. As may be seen, everything about the vice used for working the wood is itself made of wood. The pressure that holds the wood in place comes from the foot.

Once the wood is sufficiently round, it can be used on the foot-powered lathe. This is a wonderfully simple device, powered by a combination of the tension in the string and the repeated foot movements which keep the wood turning at a surprisingly high speed. Applying a chisel to the wood allows it to be shaped in a way recognisable to anyone who has seen a wooden chair leg or wooden pepper grinder.

Bart (the man in the pink shirt on the left) is certainly on my list of people I want to know when the world economy collapses and we are forced to live off the land again! Everything we did today required no electricity, no cost (the wood was taken from his copse in Wales) and had zero carbon emissions. True it took longer than the modern approach of electric plunge routers, jigsaws and angle grinders, but it was significantly more satisfying.

After a hearty barbeque (again, requiring no electricity although some carbon emissions) we were taken on a nature walk by the park ranger (a job title that made me feel like Yogi Bear and put me on the lookout for unattended picnic baskets). This was useful, interesting and informative. We made little cardboard wheels for identifying butterflies, insects and trees and were taken on a guided tour of the trees and hedgerows. We identified trees from their leaves and learnt which ones could make tasty beverages like dandelion and burdock. We learnt about the uses of elderflowers and elderberries and reminisced about the effects of elderberry wine and sloe gin.

I kept a keen eye open for butterflies, although I had been warned that the overcast day made them unlikely to see. How like us, the humble butterfly, to stay at home when the weather is not to our liking! The park ranger regaled us with interesting factoids about the plants we encountered, eg, the phrase 'burning the candle at both ends' came from the days when rushes were burnt to light the homes of the poor, suspended by a string in the middle and lit at either end.

All in all, this was an interesting and an enjoyable day and I look forward to my next lesson in the ways of wood and nature. And the opportunity to meet our opposite numbers at the evocatively named 'Windswept House' was a welcome one.

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