A friend bought me ‘A Year in the Woods: The Diary of a Forest Ranger‘, by Colin Elford. I picked up the book with a certain apprehension – the second-hand bookshops’ natural history shelves are stuffed with glossy tomes under that kind of title; giving accounts either uncomfortably twee or tediously focussed on shooting, fishing, horses or birds. The cover gave me some hope, being a gentle New Naturalist-style linocut rather than a breathless photo of some generic deer in the leaves.
Once I began to read, my concerns evaporated within a few paragraphs. For this is a direct book. Colin Elford writes succinctly, writing as much as he needs to and no more. The reader can almost feel and smell the forest and its hidden life as Elford’s measured voice describes it with the kind of understated eloquence that one might be more accustomed to hearing from David Attenborough.
The book is composed of a yearly cycle of short accounts of the author’s daily work, a mix of narrative and reflection which compels the reader to read on, drawn by the inevitable progression of the seasons. Before I’d even got to the end of the first page I was deeply involved with Elford’s account of the mundane task of getting up early, loading up the truck and setting off to the woods. I sensed the cold and wind, I could feel the chill metal of the Land-Rover on his hand and the consoling embrace of an old, well-loved pair of boots. Some of this, to be fair, was unspoken, taking me back to the days when that was the start of my working day too, albeit that I didn’t have a rifle and two dogs in the van with me. But the evocation of memory and emotion in the reader is where the television and cinema will never manage to compete with good writing – and this book, without doubt, comfortably exceeds that criterion.
The sparseness of Elford’s style is richly enhanced by the depth of his insight. Much of the book concerns his work stalking and culling deer, and he is profoundly conscious of the nature of the task. Whilst he can only be a man uncommonly good at his work, he loves and respects the deer and honestly expresses his feelings of regret and even guilt when he efficiently culls them, along with compassion when he is called to dispatch a roadside victim. But thankfully, he never descends into any kind of mawkishness, nor does he bother to go into the arguments for and against deer culling. This is a story of a man at work – Elford is clearly reconciled to his role as the bringer of death, but is conscious of what that means. He observes other predators around him – foxes, stoats, owls, buzzards and even an osprey, and perhaps sees himself among their number.
Elford’s only other book is the 1988 ‘Practical Woodland Stalking‘ – described by his publishers, Hamish Hamilton, as “very different“. He waited 22 years before producing this short second book, a splendid creation that crystallises a great deal of knowledge and experience into just the right number of words. ‘A Year in the Woods’ is worthwhile reading indeed – I enjoyed it immensely.