"The Dark Wood of error"
“Midway on life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough”
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
'The Divine Comedy' - Inferno, Canto 1
To the joyfully uninitiated, a forest is simply a forest.
Self maintaining, effortless, graceful. A silent army of timber sentries, standing guard over Mother Nature’s Kingdom. Lovely to view from a window, but lovelier still to explore on a long walk. After a restorative trek through the woods, you sling your muddy boots in the car and drive home for a cup of tea and a Sunday roast. This is what smart people do. Not me.
I reminisce occasionally about the time before my Hero’s Journey began, before my descent into Hell and back out again. And while it may be true for the majority of people, for the majority of the time, that “ignorance is bliss” very few people are stupid enough to buy a forest when they know nothing about them.
As a Blind Wanderer, that’s exactly what I did in the year of our Lord, 2018.
the blind wanderer
Prior to becoming a land owner, in a then-simpler but less rewarding existence, I was innocently pursuing a favourite pastime of mine: procrastinating aimlessly on the UK property websites, and enjoying Bitcoin’s spectacular rises and falls on the ticker tape. Fate, taking note of my idleness, dealt a spectacular card that transformed my life.
I stumbled upon an attractive sales listing for a suspiciously cheap woodland within comfortable driving distance of my family home. Owning a forest would be an interesting experience. And for what it is – that looks bloody cheap. Cheaper than the houses, dare I say affordable!
Without much consideration, I dialled the number and bought it. No warnings were sought or offered, by agent, seller or lawyers, from point of enquiry to completion.
The lessons I’ve since learned of woodland management and forestry, after that initial moment of heedless folly, are almost uncountable. Some of the more interesting, I’m about to share.
Moreover, as a Bitcoiner, I feel doubly duty-bound to impart my own first-hand observations, drawn from the apparently separate perspectives of both areas, that surely a scarce few would have the dubious ability to share.
I write for 4 audiences: General interest, Bitcoiners, Landowners; and especially land-owning Bitcoiners. Poor souls. I feel your pain! You have my highest respect. But some advice to the first 3:
– If you’re a Bitcoiner who doesn’t yet own land – go and meet someone who does. They provide your means to live.
– If you’re a Landowner who doesn’t yet have any Bitcoin – go and meet someone who does. They can help protect your way of life.
– If you’re neither – respectfully reconsider, but of the 2, Bitcoin is easier!
In Dante’s 14th century masterwork: The Divine Comedy, the author-protagonist starts off on his transformative journey to God, from a “Dark Forest of Error”.
I too found myself in a Dark Forest of Error, though the beasts I encountered in there were less literal than the dark forest, I nevertheless faced my own manifestations of malice, incontinence and violence between the tall trees, at the start of my own adventure.
In his epic poem, Dante escapes the Dark Forest, first by way of Hell, next into Purgatory, and only then beyond, into Paradise. I’ll leave it for you the reader, to conclude where I am in my own Comedy.
The parallels and real-world overlaps of forestry and Bitcoin are staggering. Enjoy.
Antecedents of Expensive Growth
The history of my woodland is the history of the United Kingdom.
At the start of the 20th century, it was a profitable granite and slate quarry, providing a livelihood to the area and value to the country as it developed economically over the course of the Second Industrial Revolution.
A quarryman was killed on-site during this time, and his mortal remains were brought through the local town, unceremoniously, on horse-drawn cart. His waiting son recognised the familiar hobnail boots protruding from the sheet that covered his father. A different time, and a memory I kept keenly in mind during my own operations over a century later. Responsibility for life is a heavy burden and a privilege (one I carried personally more than once on the more critical days of the work).
At the commencement of the Great War, the land has been planted in native hardwoods that had established well around the then-abandoned quarry. Strong oaks, planted by even stronger men, with dirty hands and clean money.
There, the vigorous forest stood in peace and harmony, at least for a while…
Decades later, as World War II raged abroad and overhead, the priorities of the nation overtook those of the woodlands, and sometime after falling into the ownership of the Liverpool Timber Company, the site was “clear felled” (cut down to stumps) to support the urgent war effort. What had been originally planted for the beams of new houses or for warmth in a nearby hearth, was requisitioned for barrels and planks. So it goes.
So it seems that as young men were being industrially destroyed in global conflict – so went the timber in the forest. What had existed for centuries, took mere weeks to destroy. When this horrendous era of history and economics concluded, the survivors came home and had babies. Lots and lots of babies.
Out of the level destruction of total war, the timber I work with today was planted as saplings in the bare earth between town and village, as their inhabitants were delivering a fresh wave of post-war children into this ‘brave new world’. Both were established at a time of cautious optimism, in the barren; fertile soils of each system, blissfully unaware of the unintended consequences of either experiment.
Samson posing near early 20th century mining equipment
The Bretton Woodlands Era
Regardless of the result for either side, the entire Western world had bankrupted itself to settle once and all, an entirely avoidable calamity. The scalded Corporal of the Kaiser’s vanquished army, Adolf Hitler and all his odious conspirators, were finally and utterly defeated.
All it took was the destruction of our global system of hard money, and the forfeited futures of a lost generation of men and boys.
As the UK and the wider world departed from monetary sobriety with its first reluctant sip of fractional reserve currency, decisions in my forest were being made with an apparent inherited drunkenness of the new Bretton Woods System. It was decided that the site was to be replanted experimentally in non-native conifer crops from North America.
In the face of overwhelming anticipated demand for industrial materials, quality was sacrificed for quantity, as it was shortly prior in the monetary system. The fundamentally inelastic supply curve of timber was stretched as far as anyone had dared go before.
Amongst post-war stumps of felled oak and beech and ash, planted in orderly rows and in rectangular blocks, the saplings of this new design of woodland promised to meet the needs of the next generation of citizens that grew alongside them.
Soft Money, Soft People & Softwood
As with all truly terrible ideas, the basic logic of fast rotating conifer crops had theoretical merit. And like all terrible ideas, particularly in matters of economics, planners failed to consider the long-term consequences or the effects on all groups, not just the short-term benefits for a specific group. The promised “free lunch” of faster timber supply was seemingly too much to resist at the time. So it goes.
The preferences of the average consumer had already begun to shrink to shorter time horizons. Over the early decades of this radical new planting strategy, global markets gradually opened up, offering cheaper and quicker substitutes to regional supplies. As a result, the domestic production economy started to hollow out and fall into secular stagnation.
The UK exported its inflation over to the developing world, and in exchange, imported their bountiful goods and raw materials. The early second-order effects came home to roost in the form of labour reform, political unrest and stagflation throughout the 1970’s and 80’s.
As the woodland conifers and the Baby Boomers approached maturity, the world quietly abandoned the Gold Standard of money entirely. Somewhere in the blur of disco and colour televisions, a flawed initial strategy had been irreversibly committed to, without formal discussion or informed consent. Forest and economy took the path of least resistance, and the path of no return.
On my own forest, 2 non-native crops had been planted together: Grand Fir and Douglas Fir. Although close cousins, aesthetically similar and both being fast growers, the Douglas was a proven and viable construction material, but the Grand Fir was planted to supply 2 post-war industries: matchsticks and paper pulp, having no tensile strength or durability for construction, and being an inferior firewood. All trees were equal – but under the bark, some were more equal than others.
Despite being a supposedly quicker route to market for the “savvy” modern landowner, by the time these trees reached an acceptable size for harvesting, the industries they were planted to supply had vanished from the economy of the modern United Kingdom. Matchsticks were replaced over the 1970’s with disposable lighters from factories in The Far East, and the paper mills went in the same direction. There was simply no market for Grand Fir to be absorbed into. So it goes.
grand fir windblown tree: so brittle it snapped around the ledge it fell on.
Softwood left, hardwood right.
the difference is obvious
The “Dougies” would still sell, but the “Grandies” were worthless. Being inseparable from one another as a harvesting operation, ongoing maintenance operations were abandoned, the problem deferred, and the harvest left in place. The forest crept into disrepair and dereliction.
Running parallel to this minor tragedy, the Baby Boomers had been enjoying better luck. Surfing the economic wave of Globalism, they built their future with cheaper goods and by accumulating paper wealth, passing inflated; leveraged property deeds between each other in an intoxicating virtuous cycle of tight housing supply and monetary inflation. A service economy replaced the productive industries that had fled abroad, and life went on as houses and stocks replaced currency as the way to store value.
What was good for contemporary society, was bad for the forest. Around the access ways and major roads, new houses sprung up to meet rising demand. Extensions were built and populations consolidated. All helped along by innovations in technology, commuter friendly work; efficient cars; and other goods – from foreign factories. The nanny State grew greedily like a thirsty weed in a failing vegetable patch.
The connection between productive land and its requirement was being eroded alongside the meaning of money. The Public came to view the countryside less as the productive base for their society, and more as a nice place to visit and admire as a break from their increasingly sedentary, office based professions.
Mushy, grey rules formed around the once-clear law on forestry and agriculture, like the strangling ivy around a once immovable oak. The consultancy industry flourished. Sawmen became chainsaw instructors. The rest were absorbed into the burgeoning welfare state, or into other less meaningful work. Larger and larger machinery adapted to the narrower and narrower requirements and displaced the versatility and expense of skilled men.
By the turn of the millennium, now flush in comfort and wealth, the Baby Boomers developed a late-onset concern for the environment. After a productive lifetime of supplying landfills with disposable plastic in a sugar rush of consumerism—the Boomers started to worry ‘generally’ about the planet. But never at the expense of their own wants and needs.
An already dominant State took its chance to expand further still, rushing into the welcoming void of societal complacency, state dependency, and the existential dread of people who were getting older and knew it.
For this oblivious generation, any added costs along the way were bearable, and were simply pushed into the future, or taken out of their financial surpluses, but mostly onto the shoulders of everyone behind them in economics and demographics. The ladder was being pulled up behind them in the name of safety and the environment.
A little more time went on, and by then, my forest was reaching an advanced state of decline. Just in time for a Blind Wanderer, from 50 miles away, to innocuously click the link to an advertisement.
I bought eagerly and naively from a struggling local council who were using the woods infrequently for outdoor activities, and frankly more in need of the money than the land and it’s problems (all of this only after the local community, now approaching early retirement, were offered the land at deeply discounted rates, who chose wisely but selfishly to pass on the opportunity, and go on holiday instead).
The Call to Adventure
Everyone remembers their first day at work. But usually, they’re aware it’s their first day, and they understand their job – I didn’t!
Shortly after closing on the land deal, I’d thought it was about time that I jump in the car and visit my new luxury asset, and never one to be inefficient in the midst of catastrophe, I had also booked a meeting with a local forestry contractor to discuss the undoubted and limitless potential of my new purchase.
He walked up to me with a grin like a Cheshire Cat. The face of a man who is about to enjoy telling you that the zip on your fly is down just as you’ve walked out of church and shook the Vicar’s hand. He explained to me in one sentence what I’ve just taken all too long to describe:
"You're f$£ked here mate, all this over-stood timber
and no you've got no road access".
I certainly had no idea what I was being told. I had bought a beautiful woodland that I intended to do nothing with but walk in, and enjoy. What do I need roads for when I can park in the village and walk? A bit steep in places yes, and yes, now that he mentioned it the trees were awfully bloody tall, and there were a lot of them. But that’s what a forest is, right? RIGHT?
No Ben, no. You sweet summer child. On returning home, like any bad investor, I hastily performed some retrospective due diligence, and the weight of the problem fell across my chest like a 70 year old windblown conifer.
Apparently, I had purchased a serious liability. Worse still, where property rights had somewhat degraded over the decades, owner liability had remained loyally attached to the deed, and to me. So it goes.
However there were embers of hope in the fresh ashes of my personal finances. A relatively new industry has sprung up to accommodate these growing concerns for the environment: biomass woodchip.
a section of the conifers that was already collapsing
Above: Builder's Merchant treated softwood
below: a sample of douglas fir from my plantation
The softwood is a forgiving material to put through modern wood-chipping machinery, and high water content acted as a moderator for the combustion process of these new style boilers. That put a solid floor in the prices of ANY forms of timber, even branches, and has been a timely option for disposing of my Grand Fir ever since.
Better still, owing to the lack of care over the years – the Douglas Fir had grown amongst dying trees that on a better managed forest would have been “thinned” and removed to create space for the others. That caused reduced rates of growth and thus greater density which inadvertently created a rare timber stock of above average quality and marketable value.
The specifics of how I tamed the problem is perhaps a matter for later writing, but the situation was brought to a respectable and not-unsatisfactory interim conclusion. The full account of this will remain in my journals for another time, as the war rages on.
Remember reader, I promised you a Comedy – not a Tragedy, but not before we pass through Hell.
Let’s continue in Part 2 of the series…