John Stewart Collis
This is the second of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.
During World War II writer John Stewart Collis was put to work clearing and thinning an ash wood. My question throughout the book was how does clearing and thinning an ash wood contribute to the war effort? Who had the need and the resources to pay him to do such a thing? And, it is clear he was able bodied so why wasn’t he off fighting the war?
Some of the answer is hinted at in the title of the source book for The Wood. It appears that many of the volumes in the English Journeys series are excerpts from larger works and the source for The Wood is Collis’ longer work The Worm Forgives the Plough which chronicles the work Collis did as an agricultural laborer during the war. It turns out that Collis had served in WWI and was conscripted for WWII as well but was given a domestic posting which in his case turned out to be agricultural work. I assume that in other chapters of The Worm Forgives the Plough, Collis is actually put to work growing food or some other agricultural task directly aiding the production of food. Clearing and thinning an ash wood doesn’t seem to fall into that category. The wood is merely being thinned not entirely cleared so it wasn’t going to be turned over for pasture. I suppose the closest it seems to come to being essential work is that the wood provides fuel for nearby villages. But I am not sure that was the point. It just seems like a lot of busy work.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the notion of thinning a wood. Both the process and outcome really appeal to me. Bringing order to an overgrown forest. Clearing away undergrowth and sick, unstable, and excess trees. Leaving behind a lovely wood of only the finest specimens sounds like time well spent in my book. It is also the case for Collis who relishes his solitary task and the ability to be alone with nature and with his own thoughts.
I would love to have a few acres of land with woodland on it that needed management. I am not sure I actually want to do the work, but the idea certainly intrigues me. No doubt it all goes back to my love of being in control, but I also love the notion of the dreamy woodland that would come out of the foresty chaos. The book was also fascinating because we are probably going to have to take down three rather large trees in the yard of our soon to be new home. Our new neighborhood has lots of mature trees and lots and lots of shade. And shade isn’t very good for gardening, especially not vegetable gardening. So, as much as we love trees (John often prefers trees over people) we will need to fell three of them to open up the yard for our fresh produce and to create habitat for bees and butterflies. Hopefully Collis would approve.
Next up: From Dover to the Wen by William Cobbett.
Lovely! This isn't one that I was familiar with beforehand but it sounds intriguing!
Sounds like an interesting book. I am also intrigued as to why he wasn't fighting in the war, an interesting perspective of that time!
Verity: It really gave me a very calm, contented feeling.
Elise: I think I am less intrigued about why he was given a non-military domestic job than why his domestic service seems so unrelated to the war effort.
This book had quite an effect on me, and as with you it sowed a seed in me to do something similar, but until opportunity presents itself I have been doing a little background research into the story of The Wood instead. The sad truth currently is that the location of Collis Piece is forgotten. The promise that Gerdiner made to Collis remains unfulfilled and although Collis Piece is recorded in the Springhead Estate Records, the precise coordinates were not specified and the Ordnance Survey have no knowledge of the name. I have now turned amateur sleuth and am trying to rediscover this lost information, and put a proper and fitting conclusion to this inspiring memoir. I have visited the approximate location and in doing so must have walked where Collis worked – it is a stunningly beautiful piece of mixed woodland of some three or four hundred acres, high on the Dorset Hills between the Stour and Tarrant valleys with stunning views in just about all directions. Just one comment on your own – thinning a wood is an essential aspect of forest management. Selected trees are removed (for timber or fuel)every fifteen years or so allowing the remainder to flourish and grow larger. Scrub is also removed at the same time largely for access. Without this thinning the trees would not attain the larger sizes and girths required. Anyone interested in hearing more about the background to The Wood is welcome to contact me at
Ah city folk, you've got to love their knowledge of agriculture/forestry. (and the second world war). Mind you Anderson was close.
Take a look at the requirements for building a de Havilland Mosquito (a key plane in Britain's war effort, particularly pathfinders etc.). Where do you think they got the straight struts of ash for the wings? From straight ash trees, that grow in ash woods, that have to be managed, that have to be thinned by people like John Stewart Collis (in his forties at the time-a bit old for fighting) and as a native of a neutral country (yes he was from Dublin) doing his bit for the war effort.
Did you think that wood just grew on trees?