Ross Hunter

There I was, alone, deep in the woods, alone bar bow saw, with the farm’s borrowed pick up, scavenging fallen branches and smaller trunks to chop for firewood back at the cottage, when I had an enormous sense of déjà vu. I’ve been here before. The tree species are different, but the open woodland at the top of the river cliff, down to the stream, the layout of the land beneath and across is all familiar. 

Aha! Happy weekends spent at a friend’s dacha, a couple of hours jolting car ride SW of the MKAD.  

Idyllic scenery with bluebells

Hospitality is freely offered, but all the better if even slightly earned with a few hours’ exercise creating fuel, digging over the potato bed and scything the meadow followed by a swim in the river. Result, a righteous thirst at sunset. I am a bit of a Gandhain, Kropotkinist and Tolstoyan – pretty keen on doing a ration of manual labour, avoiding power tools if possible. No, I am not fit for full backbreaking toil, but a few nicely strained and rediscovered muscles do make the beer taste better.  

My two Moscow mentors for this series gave me good advice: ‘don’t let on that you have lived in Moscow’; and ‘leave the trees until last’. So that’s agreed then. Six full years in Taganska and shorter stints since.  As for trees, Moscow oblast’s cold humid continental climate (‘Dfd’ under the Köppen-Geiger system, since you ask) makes for a short and stressed growing season; only pines and silver birches thrive. The latter is iconic, with beautiful reflective bark as the sun sets, but not great as a fuel, worse for carpentry. The pines make great firewood, and severe storms often mean there are horizontal ones ready for sawing. 

Our boreal end of Lancashire, due west of Taganska and precisely 40 degrees nearer the Atlantic, specialises in rain.  Cool temperate western margins, ‘Cfb’. Yes, I know you know, erudite reader(s), but John pays me by the word, so spelling it out stacks up the kopeks. As does telling you they do. This means thrice as much rain, but a 10 month growing season. Lots of arboreal variety. Oak (quercus robor, for 2 kopeks more), beech, assorted conifers, willow, silver birch, even, domestic cherry and apple, and tree weeds like sycamore and ash. Some logs are better than others; all warm the woodburning stove; but being Cfb, all need a lot of drying out.  Drying out is not my top skill.  

Handsome Friesian Head

Pick up filled up, I headed out of the wood. It had rained, so the ground was greasy. 4×4 would not be needed, except that not every tyre had tread to please a policeman: parts are balder than me, so some light understeer in the mud added to the fun. I had to hurry, to empty and return the pick up before the end of milking.  Houses and gardens are separated, and offset by an access drive, which was once a Roman Road. As I got home, two problems emerged: some cows had slipped their gate catch, and were happily exploring our garden. Daisy, Tinkerbell and the gals, modern Friesians, have dainty feet, but weighing in at ¾ tonne each, their hooves make a right mess of the playing surface, and they are not easy to shift. Our garden had been well and truly ‘vaccinated’, and ‘fertilised’ too. A worse problem was a hovering neighbour, retired tenant farmer, always keen to ‘help’, but less bothered about social distancing, or peace and quiet.     

Wood shed, secret psychotherapy clinic

Sawing and chopping wood is a solitary pleasure, allowing the mind to wander. Free thoughts. It is remarkable the faces of pesky pupils, recalcitrant staff, implacable parents and pernickety bursars who appear on the block as the axe descends. Most therapeutic. More on this next parole weekend.  

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