“At some point over the last four hundred million years, some plant has tried every strategy with a remote chance of working. We’re just beginning to realise how varied a thing working might be. Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes. To solve the future, we must save the past. My simple rule of thumb, then is this: when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous and what you cut down.
A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware”
Richard Powers ‘The Overstory’ pp566-567
Handspring is a small design-led organisation in the heart of Sheffield run by me – Scot Fletcher – its founder and owner. It is my attempt to run a creative, practical and skilled timber craft-based enterprise following the principles and ethics of sustainability.
I have been involved with sustainability for my whole adult life and I have approached it from a number of directions including: eco building renovations, green maps, local food, academia (architecture), research, teaching and making art installations. Yet throughout all of this the one thing that connects me to myself and links my past with the present is designing and making sustainable timber structures in a creative, craft led, hands-on way.
Celebrating and supporting a deeper connection to nature has become increasingly important to me over the years. Maybe this has been as a way to continue to feel positive and hopeful in our troubled and destructive times.
I am very lucky — if you believe in luck — to have a workshop in the middle of South Yorkshire’s largest ancient woodland. A woodland that is currently gently expanding and merging into the local hinterland, due to the brilliant work of Sheffield City Council Rangers. I am lucky too because I get to cycle on tracks through this majestic forest every working day, washed clean and green by nature, leaving the sound of the city momentarily behind. I get to do this on a beautiful wooden gravel bike, made from Welsh ash by my very good friend and genius Andy Dix of Twmpa Cycles.
In the Handspring workshop, whilst the indoor spaces are old, dark and knackered, our open sided barn faces south and is an amazing place to spend the day. The site is constantly serenaded by bird song, and during the nesting season we find delicate, intricate and messy nests everywhere: in the workshop, dotted through the woodpiles and even in the tractor. The new council visitor centre that sits next to our workshop has a large pond, full of aquatic life and beehives and often before we pick up a piece of timber we say hello to a honey bee, dragon fly or giant horntail and gently shake them off! The bees have swarmed a couple of times – what an amazing and momentarily terrifying experience that is. The sky darkens with spinning insects, and then they congregate around the new escaping queen, coalescing into a dense football of vibrating insect life, before heading off to find a new home.
I carry my fascination and wonder of nature home and have re-wilded my small urban garden, which is now full of wildflowers, bees, newts, dragon flies, frogs, sparrows, blue tits, blackbirds and bats whilst also growing fruit and vegetables. This is by way of introduction to the main story:
Having a workshop in the middle of a forest might seem like an ideal location for a timber-based business. However very little timber, and none of it usable for making significant structures comes out of these ancient woods these days. It certainly used to, back when ancient woodlands where at the heart of the regions industrial revolution, and they were once busy places full of human activity.
For a long time this was a source of some frustration for me and other makers. The woods are now managed as a public amenity and wildlife reserve, but not as places that support our livelihoods. However, as human understanding of the important and complex natural processes taking place in forests has blossomed over the last few years so has my acceptance and celebration of the forest for itself has grown…
We now know that trees communicate with one another above and below ground, exchanging information, food, medicine, coordinate flowering, fruiting and masting and have early warning systems in place for predator attacks, sometimes for instance calling in wasps to act as guards. When they are sick they can drop limbs to turn into food with which to nourish themselves and before a natural death they will transfer nutrients and other resources back down through their roots and fungal networks to their leafy friends and neighbours.
“The chemistry going on in trees is astonishing. Waxes, fats, sugars. Tannins, sterols, gums and carotenoids. Resin acids, flavonoids, terpenes,. Alkaloids, phenols, corkey suberins. They’ve learnt to make whatever can be made. And most of what they make we haven’t even identified.”
Richard Powers ‘The Overstory’ pp565
All this is on top of trees being the home, shelter and food for huge numbers and variety of life. A mature Oak may have over 400 different species sheltering under its canopy and certain lichens only start to grow on oaks over half a millennium old. Trees of course also absorb carbon dioxide, storing it in their cells and mostly down into the ground through their fugal networks. They release oxygen and through transpiration pump massive amounts of water vapour into the atmosphere, creating the local, national and global climate they [and us] need to survive. All with just a little sunlight.
We haven’t even got to the fruits, nuts, resins, sap, timber and many other uses that humans have found for them.
I am plainly a user of timber. I make a whole host of products and structures from this remarkable material and so I try to be very careful about what, from where and how much wood I use, and to make things that are useful, beautiful and durable.
In practical terms I have honed my business approach, cutting away the non-renewable or dubious heritage materials. I have turned away from business growth, preferring to stay small, light and hands on and say no to involvement in excessive commercial development schemes. I add in nature as much as possible into every design and have developed some local more eco-system style relationships. These can be summarised as follows:
Using renewable materials, UK FSC sourced Oak and mostly Douglas Fir account for about 95% of all materials used, mostly freshly sawn so with very low embodied energy.
Minimising or eliminating the use of high carbon concrete and other non-renewables such as plastics and using steel carefully for connections were timber to timber joints are less resilient such as to keep the wood off the ground and away from the damp zone and so increasing the structures durability and longevity.
Reusing materials as much as possible and recycling what we can’t reuse. Waste wood become firewood for home and workshop, shavings for local chickens, pigs and horses, with eggs and manure coming back in return.
Using local labour, skills and suppliers. Connections with the community help nurture and support us.
Supporting and encouraging skill development and education through live projects, apprenticeships and school/university student work placements
Cycling to work and to collect materials where possible and using public transport to attend meetings further afield. Encouraging and supporting Handspring workers to also cycle.
Engaging with and supporting community projects.
Adding in nature to as many as our projects as possible, by using wildflower greenroofs, planting trees and incorporating bug/bat/hedgehog houses.
Being absorbed mentally and physically by the craft of making and the connection between brain and hand, fresh air and physicality.
Supporting through donations and time; local, national and European nature-based organisations, planting trees and getting involved with rewilding schemes.
Scot Fletcher PhD, MSc, BEng
Books that have recently educated me on my journey:
‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree
‘English Pastoral’ by James Rebanks
‘Guns Germs and Steel! by Jarod Diamond
‘The Missing Lynx’ by Ross Barnett
‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben
‘Entangled Life’ by Merlin Sheldrake
‘Braiding Seagrass’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer
‘Finding the Mother Tree’ by Suzanne Simard
‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers