After quite a gap, we're publishing the next of our series of blog posts featuring Women of the Woods - women who spend their lives connected to the woodlands. In this post, botanist and moss expert, Angela Newton, tells us what drives her love of all things woody.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I love being outdoors, it's where I feel most myself and at peace. I grew up in a small village in north-west Dorset, with three brothers. In our free time we practically lived outdoors - we went indoors to eat, and sleep, and go to school, but otherwise we were out and about in the fields and hedgerows. My interest and love for all things growing and living was inspired by my mother, while Dad encouraged me in more intellectual pursuits. I've always been fascinated by relationships and origins and spent a lot of my further education and career studying evolutionary questions - in particular the evolution of mosses. This resulted in my doing a lot of field work in very exotic places, but I also ended up working in cities, indoors, stuck in a lab, or at a desk, computer, or microscope. Eventually, living in London and harassed by a management structure obsessed with box-ticking, I'd had enough and headed for the hills. Now I can spend much more of my time walking, making or growing things, or just sitting and listening to the wind in the leaves.
What inspired you to buy Kirkton Wood?
My early influences certainly set me on the path to buying Kirkton Wood, but woodlands and forests have always been a significant part of my life. Although I longed for some woodland, I don't know quite why I decided to actually buy one. But I had some money to invest and already had a house. After two years of looking at places that were too small, too big, too far away, not enough or the wrong kind of trees, I suddenly found the perfect woodland almost on my doorstep. It has a significant area of "semi-natural ancient" oak woodland in the middle, and had a large area of almost mature conifer around the outside. My initial thoughts were focused on biodiversity - protecting and enhancing the species diversity of the oak woodland, with plans to eventually remove the conifers and replant with native species. But I have also always wanted the woodland to be accessible to other people, not shut away in private ownership. Since getting involved with Green Aspirations and the coppicing world, I'm now beginning to think about the longer term - how to connect the woodland to the wider community.
What challenges, if any, have you faced as a woman in woodlands?
The most significant thing really has been my physical strength (lack of) - there are things that I just can't do, or only very slowly and carefully. Persistence, stamina, and the use of levers and pulleys is essential. Having other people to help is also very important and very welcome! When large areas of the conifers were blown down in Storm Arwen I had to get professional foresters in to do the necessary work, but they were all friendly, cooperative, polite, listening to what I had to say - nothing like the traditional view of male experts' attitudes to women.
Does being a woman gives you a different perspective on the woodlands?
It's difficult to separate the effects of my being a woman from other aspects - being a botanist, or a buddhist meditator. For my mother, respect for other creatures' lives was very important, she taught us why not to kill wasps or spiders, for example, and that has always been important to me. This may seem strange, but I often feel physical discomfort when I see things suffering. I can't leave an earthworm on a dry pavement, and I apologise to plants I accidently damage... Having the conifers felled was very distressing, not just for the impact on the trees, but for all the other creatures affected. Is this a consequence of being a woman, or independent of it, just hightened sensitivity? On the other hand, my wish to enhance the biodiversity of the woodlands, and to keep them accessible to other people, may well be a nurturing impulse and therefore attributable to being a woman.
What’s the best thing about owning a woodland?
Being outdoors, deciding what to do and carrying it out - or not, doing it completely differently, or not at all! In my wood, I can sit and watch and listen, walk, build or make things, dig holes, move rocks and logs, cut firewood, cook lunch on a live fire... Solving problems, developing skills. I love to make things from natural materials, to work with tools and techniques from our heritage.
What advice would you give to other women who might be thinking about getting more involved in the woodlands?
Go for it! Listen for the thoughts that hold you back, whatever internal stories you have that say "girls don't do this", "what would people say", "I'm not strong, clever enough, I don't know how", "it's yucky...". As women (or people of colour, or disabled, or elderly, or neurodivergent, etc) we're constantly being bombarded by stories about what we can and can't do. Working in woodlands and with woodland crafts is relatively easy (or less challenging) than some other role-transgressing situations, especially if you have a friendly supportive community to work with. So it can be a way of developing personal skills and strength to work with other situations in our lives. But it's also fun!
If you're interested in honing your skills, why not join our regular volunteering group. We have loads of opportunities to get involved and learn new things.