Rural: Why cast out the woodlander?

Duff Hart-Davis meets 'Bodger' White, ex-Hammersmith, ex-Army, forest dweller and expert in sustainable silviculture, whose lifestyle is threatened by local regulations
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The Independent Online
If someone chooses to live rough in the middle of a forest, with the agreement of the owner, why should the local council seek to evict him? That is the question now being asked with some anger by supporters of Michael "Bodger" White, who for the past two years has occupied an encampment in Ashen Plains Wood, high above the Cotswold town of Dursley.

Bodger, now 52, is known locally as an archetypal woodsman, dedicated to coppicing and restoring ancient woodland; but in fact he has had a varied career. He was born in Hammersmith, the youngest of eight children, and has never lost his Cockney accent. Nor has he lost an arsenal of military invective acquired during six years in the Middlesex Regiment.

When he came out of the Army he went to work as a butcher in Berlin, where he married a well-to-do German girl - but the marriage lasted only a few months. Later he ran a business recycling paper and cardboard, and also what he mysteriously calls "a research business". Yet for the last six years he has worked - and lived - in woods in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire.

He landed on his present site because the owner of the property, Alan Jones, a lecturer in building techniques, shares Bodger's interest in training young people in traditional country skills. Two courses had already been held in the wood, and Bodger's aim was to run others; but his hopes of getting grants have repeatedly been dashed, and battles with what he calls "the bureaucratical system" have left him with a bitter contempt for conservationist quangos.

His ramshackle establishment, which he shares with his handsome Alsatian Dylan, would win no prizes for style or hygiene. Although it includes a caravan, that is used only as an office; Bodger lives in a couple of spacious benders, propped up on slender hazel rods and guyed with baler twine. He cooks on charcoal (which he himself makes) in a portable barbecue. His oven is an old biscuit tin, in which he bakes his own pies. There is no electricity. Water comes from a butt that collects rain from the roof of two wooden store-sheds. He has a radio, but no television and no form of transport.

Twice a week he walks down into town, to stock up with supplies, and at weekends he sets out a stall on the pavement in the middle of Dursley, selling walking sticks, flowers made from wood and other rustic artefacts. Some people, seeing him there with his placards, suspect that he protests a bit too much - that he has been carried away by his own propaganda campaign. (Last November, having put down a preliminary barrage of letters on the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Environment and a few others, he marched all the way to London to plead his cause.)

Up on his own ground, however, his sincerity of purpose and his deep knowledge immediately become apparent. "This is a rarity," he says as he leads a visitor round, "a real mixed wood, with trees of different ages. We've got hazel, cherry, whitebeam, beech, oak, larch, sycamore, elm, silver birch...

"You can see it's been coppiced for centuries. This beech stool is 600 years old - verified by two experts. That hazel stool's been cut all wrong. With hazel, you've got to suppress him - cut him off as low as you can, to force him to shoot at the sides. This sycamore, now - you can make loads of things out of that, cooking utensils for one. Conservationists hate sycamores. They cut them down and pour f*****g poison on them."

Hazel stools properly cut by Bodger are growing away straight and true. In eight or 10 years, the new shoots will be marketable as walking sticks or hurdles or rustic chairs. His whole theme is the sustainability of traditional coppicing - and, indeed, of his chosen way of life.

There are echoes here of Henry Thoreau, the American natural philosopher who, in 1845, abandoned his home in Concord, Massachusetts, and went to live in a log cabin in the woods, rejecting accepted social and political values. I doubt, however, that Bodger will ever write a book to challenge Thoreau's celebrated Walden.

His income is "practically zero", but because the authorities deem that he is working, he cannot go on the dole. Nor does he want to. He prefers living as he does in the silence and solitude of the wood, "with no nosy neighbours, and nobody coming up and telling you what to do".

The trouble is that people are now telling him what to do. The local planning officer, after a visit, decreed that his occupation of the site constitutes a different use of the land - residential rather than silvicultural - and the council has issued notices ordering him to quit by June.

Is this not planning gone crazy? As Bodger himself points out, a bed- sitting room in Dursley would cost up to pounds 80 a week, and if he were forced into one - quite apart from the fact that he would hate it - he would immediately become a burden on the state.

No wonder he fulminates against the excesses of our consumer society, and declares that he "can't see how civilisation can be sustainable, the way it's going".

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