Six months living off wild food is no easy task, while planning my tree dwelling experiment; I felt it would be a good idea to take my inspiration from the transition of the Mesolithic to the Neolithic. Whilst probing the recesses of my mind for the archaeological knowledge stored away during my degree, I seemed to remember it was around 4000BC that the Neolithic kicked in, bringing with it the domestication of animals and crops.
As wonderful and diverse as the wild larder is, I felt it would need the support of a small, yet productive vegetable patch, carbohydrates for one. Burdock roots, dandelion roots and cattails are all very well, but why not have a glut of potatoes too? It would be good to have some crops to fill in the gaps where the wild foods are lacking.
As far as animals are concerned, it would be wonderful to have some pigs and chickens, but I think that would be a step too far and a bridge I will cross later in life. Thus my meat larder will consist primarily of wild cuts, the fish, the birds and the beasts and maybe the insects too…
With the first buds beginning to break, I suddenly realised that I had to get a patch ready, so I could get my crops in the ground. With a brief panic and a realisation that this project was actually going to happen, I hopped on a train and found myself on the corner of a maize field, a stones throw from my newly acquired estate.
The “Patch” was the first task to complete, I knew how I wanted it to look, something that would reflect the design features of the tree house, a taste of the things to come if you like. Hobbiton was perhaps the inspiration for the aesthetics and I was determined to build something that was worthy of the Shire, without all the hairy-footed pointy-eared little individuals mincing about.
It only seemed right to conduct the build of the patch in the same way it would have been done back in the day: a bit of hard graft and a pot of elbow grease. The position of the patch was in on the edge of the maize field on an open patch of grass, 10ft away was a small stream lined with coppiced willow. Both the stream and the willow would be invaluable: a ready supply of water for keeping the veggies hydrated and willow for fencing: this wasn’t just coincidence!
I have prepared vegetable gardens in the past, the last one I did involved a little digging, an awful lot of sieving out stones and not much else. Carving out a much bigger patch from this field was going to be lot harder. I began by roping off the 14’ by 20’ patch as a guideline and set to work.
Turfing isn’t a lot of fun and after 1 row I became acutely aware of the task that I had set myself, row after row I toiled until I was distracted by the only resident of the field: 400lbs of pork came waddling over and began rooting about the bare earth I had just excavated. ‘Bangers’ was my landlord’s pig and was enormous. At first she began working the land for me and I was pleased that I would have no need for a rotivator- bangers was turning over the soil like nobody’s business! As she began to get accustomed to her surroundings and run out of digging space, she decided to start turning up the neat edges of my would-be patch. I don’t know if you have ever tried moving a 400lb pig- I have, Its not the easiest thing to do…
As the day wore on, and after much pleading with myself to make the patch smaller, I eventually completed turfing at sundown. My arms and legs ached and I was coated in a thin layer of dirt, but I had not budged on the size I had set myself and it was starting to look like somewhere vegetables might like to live.
Another early start and a much happier one, today would be all about wood and instead of a gardening fork, I was equipped with some string, a machete, a hatchet and a pair of snips. The willows were in need of a severe haircut and on went the I-pod and gradually, along to the wailing guitar of Mr Hendrix, fencing material began to pile up. By lunchtime the trees were bald and I was hungry, so I wandered up to the wood intent on cooking up some lamb steaks on a fire and chopping down some lengths of hazel for fence posts.
Hazel is a wonderful addition to the British countryside; there is no wood more versatile or easy to collect. You can always find the perfect size and length for whatever it is you need, I love looking from tree to tree searching out the perfect size and having that eureka moment once you lay your hands upon it.
After lunch I began the gentle art of wicker walling. Chopping the hazel posts to length, getting them in the ground and then weaving the willow in and out to build my rabbit-proof fence. I wasn’t sure if there were many rabbits about, but there was a pig, an occasional flock of sheep, deer and others that I wasn’t prepared to share my crops with. Once I had built the wall up a couple of feet, I capped off the fence with a couple of long hazel railings to keep out the larger game and fence no.1 was complete. By evening I had two walls up, a new set of aches and pains, worn down hands and an urge for bed. Slowly this place was beginning to look a bit Shire-like.
Day three was not as pleasant as it should have been, grey skies and the odd bit of drizzle quashed my premature hopes of Spring, the wild garlic was getting fatter and the pussy willow buds were breaking- so some hope remained…
More cutting of willow and more slicing of hazel went on for most of the day and by mid-afternoon my walling skills had become legendry and all four were complete, I had even managed to put in an arched gateway during an inspired lunch break. When I arrived at my mother’s that evening for supper, I discovered that she had a few gifts. A bucket load of early and main crop seed potatoes, a few broad bean plants, sweet peas and a selection of herbs: off to a great start! I lay down the potatoes to chit and went to bed absolutely knackered.
The final day in the country before I had to scoot back up to London to actually earn money through less-appealing employment, was a bit rushed. I began my day by ditching my rucksack within the garden walls and went off to wield the machete in the woods to gather yet more hazel for my four wigwams that would support the climbers (runner beans, peas etc). As I struggled across the field with a huge faggot of hazel lengths (yes…in the old days folk would call bundles of wood faggots), I spied a large portion of pork inside my four walls…bugger! It seemed Bangers had not exhausted my patch of tasty roots and had gone in with the intention of a light brunch at my expense. Not only had she ruined more of the neat edges with her snuffling, she had also got her chops around my water bottle and chewed it to s@%t! It was going to be a thirsty day indeed, especially after 15 minutes trying to get the pig out of the gate.
After this latest breach, I decided to put together a rudimentary gate from some hazel off cuts and then went back to the job at hand. Before I put up the wigwams, I had to prepare the soil; this involved some backbreaking clod busting and some composting. The field on the other side of the stream was peppered with small, dark piles of horse excrement. Not being one to waste some free poo, I got my poncho (which will never smell the same again) and began running around the field filling it with horse waste. Back at the patch, I heaved the big bag of dump over the stream and over the fence. Yet more soil conditioning and digging in the manure followed.
The afternoon was a little more laid back as I set to work making the wigwams. The wigwams were made from Eight 6-7 foot lengths of hazel tied together at the top and some hazel withies bound on in an ascending spiral- its all about the look. By the time I had finished building, I had half an hour left before it was time to go and rejoin society, I spent it digging. Breaking up compact clods is hard work, especially on your own. I knew that next time I came down, it would hopefully be with a few friends (foolish ones at that) and it would be all about the digging- what fun!
Standing back to survey my handiwork, I was amazed at what a few days of enthusiastic hard work can achieve. The patch was truly worthy of its Middle earth status and looked as rustic as a hay bale drinking a jug of Scrumpy. I was happy with the home I had created for my vegetables; this would be a lovely place to grow. With the Day of the move a month and a bit away, I was content with my achievements and I began to imagine how my life as a tree dweller would be- walking down here on a warm summer’s evening to pick and water the vegetables, plucking a few fish straight from the river, raiding the wild larder and heading back to my deciduous home to cook up a fresh & wild feast.
This way of life is going to be hard work, which was exactly what I had expected, but I have also learnt how rewarding it can be. To be able to see what you're capable of building with your bare hands is quite something. As the saying goes: ‘nothing worth having in life ever came easy’ and I whole-heartedly agree.
I think life down here will be just perfect…