A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey

In 1999 Ruth Pavey bought four acres of Somerset scrubland at a land auction. It wasn’t exactly what she’d set out to acquire: it wasn’t a “pretty” field, and traffic was audible from it. But she was pleased to return to her family’s roots in the Somerset Levels area – this “silted place of slow waters, eels, reeds, drainage engineers, buttercups, church towers, quiet” that her father came from, and where she was born – and she fancied planting some trees.

There never was a master plan […] I wanted to open up enough room for trees that might live for centuries […] I also wanted to keep areas of wilderness for the creatures […] And I wanted it to be beautiful. Not immaculate, that was too much to hope for, but, in its own ragged, benign way, beautiful.

This pleasantly meandering memoir, Pavey’s first book, is an account of nearly two decades spent working alongside nature to restore some of her land to orchard and maintain the rest in good health. The first steps were clear: she had to deal with some fallen willows, find a water source and plan a temporary shelter. Rather than a shed, which would be taken as evidence of permanent residency, she resorted to a “Rollalong,” a mobile metal cabin she could heat just enough to survive nights spent on site. Before long, though, she bought a nearby cottage to serve as her base when she left her London teaching job behind on weekends.

Then came the hard work: after buying trees from nurseries and ordering apple varieties that would fruit quickly, Pavey had to plant it all and pick up enough knowledge about pruning, grafting, squirrel management, canker and so on to keep everything alive. There was always something new to learn, and plenty of surprises – such as the stray llama that visited her neighbor’s orchard. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs.

Britain has seen a recent flourishing of hybrid memoirs–nature books by the likes of Helen Macdonald, Mallachy Tallack and Clover Stroud. By comparison, Pavey is not as confiding about her personal life as you might expect. She reveals precious little about herself: she tells us that her mother died when she was young and she was mostly raised by an aunt; she hints at some failed love affairs; in the acknowledgments she mentions a son; from the jacket copy I know she’s the gardening correspondent for the Hampstead & Highgate Express. But that’s it. This really is all about the wood, and apart from serving as an apt Woolf reference the use of “one” in the title is in deliberate opposition to the confessional connotations of “my”.

Still, I think this book will appeal to readers of modern nature writers like Paul Evans and Mark Cocker – these two are Guardian Country Diarists, and Pavey develops the same healthy habit of sticking to one patch and lovingly monitoring its every development. I was also reminded of Peri McQuay’s memoir of building a home in the woods of Canada.

What struck me most was how this undertaking encourages the long view: “being finished, in the sense of being brought to a satisfactory conclusion, is not something that happens in a garden, an orchard or a wood, however well planned or cultivated,” she writes. It’s an ongoing project, and she avoids nostalgia and melodrama in planning for its future after she’s gone; “I am only there for a while, a twinkling. But [the trees and creatures] … will remain.” This would make a good Christmas present for the dedicated gardener in your life, not least because of the inclusion of Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings.

A Wood of One’s Own was published on September 21st by Duckworth Overlook. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

My rating:


16 responses

  1. This is exactly the Christmas present for a friend of mine. Forty years ago she and her husband bought a home which had some land attached and went on to plant over a hundred trees. It is now quite mature woodland. Thank you for the recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, perfect! It’s a beautifully produced book as well. I hope she will enjoy it.


  2. This does sound appealing, as does the notion of buying a tract of land to let it be wild. (Although it sounds like she did a lot of maintenance.) I wish I had a good chunk of money to do so!


    1. In the end she only paid £2750, which isn’t so bad for 4 acres. It does sound like it’s been a lot of work over the years, but also a source of joy. The random llama turning up was my favorite part 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds so lovely. My husband and I always talk about doing something like this. Just short on a bit of cash…
    I missed your review of Peri McQuay’s book – off to check it out!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds lovely, and actually I get a bit fed up with having too much of people’s back story inserted into a perfectly good book about nature, so this sounds right up my street!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair enough! I like the nature/memoir hybrid, but I can see how some people think it waters down nature writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think there’s a place for it and it’s a good place, but it seems every book now (cf my review of ReWild) seems to shoehorn in some kind of tragic back story and sometimes you don’t need that.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This does appeal, even though, or perhaps because this is a part of England I don’t know well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did think of you, so I’m glad you’re interested. I’ve visited that part of Somerset a couple of times. Most memorably, I saw my first and (so far) only wild otter at Ham Wall RSPB reserve.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. We are lucky enough to own a field adjacent to our house. We talk often about how to use it – mostly in terms of how to attract wildlife and wildflowers. I’ve thought often about adding some trees. This sounds like a wonderful – and for me at least, inspiring – book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just right for you, then 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love line drawings in a work like this; it really brings it off the page, don’t you think? Like you can insert yourself into the landscape more easily or something?


    1. Her style reminded me of Elisabeth Luard’s illustrations of her foodie travels. I agree the book would be much less special without the drawings.


  8. […] This pleasantly meandering memoir, an account of two decades spent restoring land to orchard in Somerset, will appeal to readers of modern nature writers. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs. Bonus: Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings. (See my full review.) […]


  9. […] and maintain the rest in good health. Her account of the first two decades of this ongoing project, A Wood of One’s Own, was published in […]


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