“I showed them where the animals have made an opening in the old stock fencing through to the higher wood. Pleased to keep to myself what a ripping, stinging struggle awaited them. Throughout this exchange the man kept his head down. In my last glimpse of him he ducked lower to avoid a hanging curtain of ivy, stepped over the wire and followed the woman into the half-light of the ash wood. Into the selva oscura with them, thought I.”
A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey
Have you ever wondered what happened to Enid Blyton’s characters when they grew up? I think I might have found out. Having read A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey, I have strong suspicions that they might have bought a few acres of woodland on the Somerset Levels and written a memoir about their experiences with the queer folk they met in the land round there.
I was drawn to A Wood of One’s Own by Maddy Mould’s beautiful jacket design, the puffs from the cover endorsements suggesting that this would be a piece of nature writing to sit alongside Isabella Tree’s Wilding, or perhaps something by Robert McFarlane. I liked the idea of someone deciding to take a barren piece of land and plant their own woodland, and seeing what kind of voyage of discovery this would take them on. I’d still be interested to read a book like that, but Ruth Pavey’s A Wood of One’s Own is not it.
Having read it, I’m still not entirely sure who the book is for. It’s a curious mixture of non-sequitur anecdotes that arise in a way that seems entirely disconnected from the text that precedes them and are never resolved, and mildly poisonous pen portraits of people who have seemingly wronged the author. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim she goes full Rita Skeeter (except maybe as in with the quote above with her maliciously gleeful account of directing a woman who questioned whether there was a footpath through her land into nettles and brambles) but Ruth Pavey rarely has a good word to say about anyone in the book – be they the nurserymen she has bought the trees from, the fruitseller who seemed to expect payment for teaching her to graft apples, or the friend she decided to end a friendship with after their dog chased rabbits in her wood, the few people who are written about in favourable terms are her neighbour Ted and a man Andrew who helped develop the woods with heavy machinery, but all are written about very much with an air of the hired help, with side musings about what they meant by certain things and their tone.
For a book which must have been written at some years distance from many events, there’s a lot of umbrage and rumination coming through, written in the part clipped and part chipper tones that reminded me of Blyton novels, with the same tendency to use minor characters eg. “the Bosnian woman”, “the campground owner’s son” to hammer home some point about the putative hero of the piece.
For me it was an uncomfortable read, which dripped of the author’s position of privilege. Buying a woodland on a jolly, breezily remarking that you bought a second house and accidentally became a second home owner while not finding it difficult to remortage your London house, it’s no surprise that it was a Sunday Times book of the year… I suppose these criticisms could be made of Isabella Tree’s Wilding, you have to be in a privileged position to be able to firstly, have the land, and secondly, be able to not farm the land and experiment with rewilding. But at least at Knepp, that was an experiment that was paying dividends for society as an exemplar of how things could be improved. A Wood of One’s Own is a memoir of Ruth Pavey’s creation of a folly, which sees the author buy up a chunk of old orchard land, clearing scrub that was a habitat for wildlife (there’s a section in which her neighbour comments on how many robins had been raised in the wilderness she has ripped out to make a lawn and a leaking pond) to plant non-native species like tulip trees and cedar in a woodland while filling what might have been a wildlife pond with koi carp.
If you want to read a book that is well written and about a genuine personal engagement with improving an environment for wildlife I’d recommend reading anything by Kate Bradbury for the small scale, to Isabella Tree’s Wilding for the grand scale. But not this.