I am to be found outside, where I love to be. Half of my life is spent as a carpenter, working with hand tools on timber I have felled, cut and seasoned. I fell trees in the winter and mill in the spring, so that the sap is down in the roots when the tree comes down and the wood dries in the gentle warmth, avoiding damp winter moulds or harsh summer heat. It’s a seasonal activity, driven by the reality of biology. In this way the weather, the landscape and life are all bound together in rural craftwork.
The Turning Year She, the giant, limbs deep-set in geology, folded in landscapes ridge-wooded, cranes her neck unmovable, turns her mind unknowable to catch the view. He, the golden sun, tugs the earth and slowly, together, they turn the year round.
I do most of my woodwork outside in the open air, rather than inside a workshop. I don’t like headphones or ear defenders. I don’t listen to the radio or podcasts and I avoid power tools, cordless or otherwise. Instead, I let my hands get on with the job (they know what to do) and allow my eyes and ears to take note of the world. Birds abound now after the dark and stillness of winter: birdsong and bird chatter are everywhere at this time of year. There’s a lone song thrush atop the tallest oak, facing west in afternoon sunshine, and blue tits darting among the shrubs, busy with nest-making.
Nest Some small and aimlessly circling feather, picked up by a bird, transferred to its legs, held fast in its nest, with an eye to the weather, cheery chit-chatting, thinking of eggs.
My experiences are powered by natural light; for working, but also emotionally. The quality of daylight and the colour of sunlight changes in so many ways during a day. With it, animals and plants come and go in as if in beautifully rehearsed choreography. Heraclitus said: ‘You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.’ The same could be said of standing in a pool of daylight. When Imbolc arrived a few weeks ago, I began to feel the warmth of the sunshine on my hands and cheeks. Very gentle, very subtle. It’s not like June, September, or any other time of the year. I love the soft, milky light of late February and early March. It is beguiling and fragile – and then the wind picks up and everything changes.
March March is a month that sometimes goes backwards, It’s in with a flurry, then flat as a flan. Seedlings are bursting as hard as they can, then buffeting winds, reversing the plan. The sun’s gentle warmth like milk in the pan, yet late frosts nip off the high hopes of man. If it’s in like a lion, it’s out like a lamb.
Working closely with natural materials, aware of other forms of life all around me and being governed by the weather is tough at times. But this sort of co-existence is a visceral participation with the living world. I feel not so much connected to nature as participating in it. There are so many moments in the day when something catches my eye as I work, like the brilliance of light on a tree on an early winter morning, or the discovery of a wren’s nest in spring. So much is fleeting, on the move, sometimes funny. You just need to be there, outside, observing.
Robert Somerville lives with his wife Lydia and their daughter in a self-built eco-house on a smallholding in Hertfordshire.
After studying engineering and architecture at Cambridge University, Somerville ran a design and building business, utilizing local wood, stone and earth. He now works with local woodland owners and foresters to source local elm timber and hand-build timber frames with the help of a group of volunteers known as the Barn Club, dedicated to rural crafts. You can watch a video of them raising a traditional elm framed barn here.
Words and images copyright © Robert Somerville, 2023. Header image is ‘February’ by Robert Somerville, watercolour on paper.