My First Job: Johnny Kingdom, the wildlife film-maker, was a lumberjack
Adventures of a Devon tree-feller
Thursday 23 November 2006
"My dad was a powder monkey and I joined him," recalls Johnny Kingdom. He set off explosives in quarries and blew up rocky ground to make holes for graves. As a boy he had shown early promise as a poacher. He became a lumberjack but, unlike the men in the Monty Python song, he wasn't all right.
The 67-year-old star of the current BBC2 Friday night series Johnny Kingdom, A Year on Exmoor has a CV that has been entirely outdoors and largely in Devon. A self-employed lumberjack has a life in the fresh air but it was a trade which had killed the father of the four brothers with whom he worked.
"It's a very dangerous job," Johnny says. First he would nip up his ladder to the selected branch and loop a rope over it. After his chainsaw had sliced most of the way through, he would signal to his colleague below and the winch on the tractor would reel in the rope until the branch came crashing down. The "stick", the de-branched trunk, would be cut at its base and winched down in turn. Finally it was hauled to the loading bay.
Tree stems could be as much as eight-and-a-half feet in diameter. The accident which ended his lumberjack career happened 35 years ago when he was working - alone - on a trunk of only four feet across. A hydraulic arm at the rear of the tractor raised and lowered the heavy anchor which held the vehicle firm during winching. As he was reversing, the chain holding the anchor snapped: "The tractor stopped dead in its tracks. The hydraulic arm, which was on a swivel, came straight through the side of the cab. It broke the bone above my eye, the bottom of my jaw and my front teeth. If that blow had hit my nose, just a couple of inches to the left, it would have pushed into my brain and I'd have been killed."
Knocked out, he came to with a vague feeling that someone had given him a good hiding. Covered in blood and with his right eye completely closed, he managed to climb into his pick-up truck and steer it along the lonely track to the main road. Somehow he drove himself home. He was rushed to hospital: "The doctor said I was like a vehicle in a crash-repair shop - and it took him a long time to fix me. I went all to pieces."
A crucial part of his treatment for depression came from the friend who lent him a video recorder and sent him off to photograph the animals on Exmoor. Johnny went on to make 28 wildlife films and write his autobiography. The media is not usually a safe career option but it is, compared to felling trees, much safer.
'Johnny Kingdom: a Wild Life on Exmoor' is published by Bantam Press, £18.99
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