IMAGINE an 'office' within walking distance of home on an ancient site, first inhabited thousands of years ago.
Imagine this is where you work flexitime, responsible for thousands, in spite of seasonal fluctuations.
At two in the afternoon this was where I found Martin Keen, working in a strange grey twilight-zone next to a churned up path. He seemed relaxed, content, charming. But then, he is in his element, he's hard-core.
For 15 years Martin has overseen a 100 hectare forest, close to remains left behind by Cro-magnon man, and the former pilot now spends every day in his woodland in south west France.
"They had 60 German prisoners of war working here, and a hundred years later, the path is still intact," Martin said.
"The wild boar turn the earth over with their noses, they are looking for worms, and grubs. We don't see them we just hear them."
He has trout and langoustine in the stream, short-toed eagles and buzzards nesting in the hornbeam, Scots pine, chestnut, maple, and oak, to say nothing of shorter species, like boxwood, dogwood, butcher's broom, angelica, wild irises... you name it.
Where France has more Green supporters than the UK, it's not surprising that the forestry commission of France (CPRF), have realised biodiversity is important.
Martin points out that an ancient split chestnut, 10m around, and at least a hundred years old, is invaluable to his woods. But, he adds, forest management is just as important as leaving parts to rot. What I thought of as a 'fruit' tree has been trained for its wood production.
"Here are cherry trees growing into great long trunks The side shoots come off as they grow, they have leaves to feed themselves but as they get higher the lower leaves fall off," Martin said.
"They grow up to reach the light, their lower branches die away, growing straight if placed in the right conditions.
I ask him about the aspects needed for different trees?
"Trees in the UK have always been managed since the beginning of time, its always been a crop, cut and cut and cut, unlike here where some are, some aren't. Forestry here is done very differently."
We are in a region of France, with a high percentage of private woodland, and where few locals have parcels of land sized for their great great grandchildren because inheritance laws dating from the French revolution have divided it up.
But France, unlike the UK, is almost self-sufficient in wood. Green politics wins here in fuel too, as wood is often used for heating, Martin explains: "They say its expensive but after you've cut it, transported it, and delivered it, you only take something for the labour and nothing for the wood.
"I have actually got more enthusiastic in the last seven or eight years than in the previous, I have actually started to see a reasoning to do the work."
This patience may baffle you as much as, he says, it baffles many locals. According to Martin they wonder why he is here.
In an area with a tradition of forestry, it's more a job than a passion. The knowledge is in the bones of the locals. Without careful forestry management the tree crops become spoiled.
"This was a mess when we started it, a mess with dead stuff, and impenetrable and then we had the men in to do the cutting. And now these trees can grow into strong trees."
He has Christmas trees which don't shed needles, but having been neglected, they've grown spindly with chestnut and ivy growing on them, as they were all competing for the same light.
But could a tree live for a few hundred years? I ask him.
"Maybe, but it's difficult, you've always got something happening," Martin said. "If you cut down some and leave others, then a tree has lost his mate.
"He gets sad, can get sunburned, as there's a part exposed that didn't get the sun before. It's really quite weird but, if you take them all down except for one or two, at the end of the winter, there'll be another one down. It's dependency, they really do live together."
The farm is quiet as the trees are silent animals, they change slowly, but are as susceptible to changes in their food and habitat as any domestic creatures.
Martin Keen stands out as the cut against the grain, the graft hybrid, the guardian of the forest, tending and harvesting his trees with dedicated skill and consistency. Woodland Trust look this way.
"There are people who've done it for years, they've been farmers, woodsmen, some professional woodcutters. A local old guy, 85, has just retired," said Martin.
"He'd die if he didn't do it, it's his life. And I find it fascinating to feel there were other people, seriously ancient here. Where the stream was going through the silt it's set and turned to stone, and there you can see petrified human footprints."
Martin is philosophical about his role in the long life of the forest.
"They are my woods at the moment, but I guess they will soon be somebody else's again when I leave."
COFOGAR Coopérative des Forêts du Sud
A co-operative offering advice and services. They will buy the trees standing in the forest, do all the work and give you a cheque. Provide access to grants and financements publics, as well as able to produce a management plan, a gestion.
To set up a managed forest contact CRPF. They have a newsletter, offer advice – not obliged to follow it – make suggestions, you can ask about grants, after storm damage compensation, they'll take the initiative. Forestry is a far bigger concern here than UK, they want to keep it natural and healthy, get invitations to seminars and chainsaw training.
ONF Office National des Forêts
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Excellent article. My impression is that forests here are managed much more wholistically than many other places, and often with the commune in mind. I'm always very pleased to see how little clear felling goes on.
Posted by: Susan Walter | 25 May 2010 at 06:53
Actually Martin did mention how upset he was when he bought his woods and an area had been ruthlessly cut down, but even then probably not the kind of clear felling as we see in pictures of rainforests. He uses the local knowledge. The know-how of thinning, copicing, felling remains in the community. He also spoke about combined crops; pines and chestnuts, felling the chestnuts first. It's a real inspiration.
Posted by: carol miers | 26 May 2010 at 08:51
Well done Martin. A true woodsman who cares! The world could do with a lot more like him. Another great article, Carol. Merci.
Posted by: J Roger Clifford-Banks | 26 May 2010 at 16:11
My husbands project has become very popular in just a few months. After reading your article i thought this maybe of interest. Regards Paula.
Posted by: Spencer Byles | 22 September 2011 at 08:11
interesting writing and images.
Posted by: Spencer Byles | 01 October 2011 at 20:29