|Forest Sangha Newsletter||April 1988|
Life in the Sangha's Forest
In 1977 the monks came to London from the forests of N. E. Thailand and the Hampstead Vihara was re-opened. This was a very different situation to the simple rural environment from which the lineage originated, Strong affiliation to forests as part of Dhamma practice could not be followed In North London. Hampstead Heath was a poor substitute.
When, suddenly, they were given about sixty hectares of woodland in Sussex, the future of Buddhism in England changed. A house was found at the edge of this wood and in 1979 Chithurst Forest Monastery came into being. Here in rural Southern England, Theravada Buddhism as known in North East Thailand could take root.
Many people - members of the Sangha, their friends, and those visitinig the monastery - have enjoyed the quiet and beauty of the woods. They have been able to use the kutis for their retreats or just to walk peacefully amongst the trees. Some may have wondered about the history of the area, about the species of trees or the local wildlife. In this account, I will try to answer such questions, tell you a little about what we have done and our plans for the future.
The Buddhist idea of harmony with all forms of life means that the Hammer Woods must naturally be managed as a conservation area.
The name of this forest is Hammer Wood. Through it flows a small river known as the Hammer Stream and there is a lake called the Hammer Pond. Such a name shows that this was once part of the medieval English iron industry, which flourished in the area until finally giving way to the more efficient Midlands during the last century. Had this not been so, rural Sussex would not be the pleasant place it is, but perhaps a land of industry and urbanism like the Black Country around Birmingham today.
Hammer Wood is situated to the north of the Greensand plains of mid-Sussex. Here the land rises to the Wealden Hangers, as the broken hill country in the north of the county is called. A great view stretches away to the Downs in the south. Here the soil is acid and the hillsides steep, so that the area was of no use for agriculture and has been thickly forested since the last Ice Age.
Our earliest historical records go back to the Iron Age. An ancient fort is situated above steep slopes overlooking the Hammer Pond and the valley through which flows the Hammer Stream. Archaeologists made excavations in the 1950s and a copy of their report is held in the Chithurst Monastery library. They found little, but made interesting observations about the ancient people who once lived there. These Celts were finally defeated by the Romans nearly two thousand years ago.
The Romans in turn left their mark with us on the road that they built between the cities Silchester and Chichester runs in a straight 1ine through the edge of our woods, to cross the River Rother at a ford to the South.
We have another mark of history. Tne Western boundary of the property runs along a muddy track, which is called Moorhouse Lane. This is said to be an old coaching road, though looking, at its direction it is difficult to pick out what towns it must have joined in the old days, when stage coaches actually used it. Where it crosses the Hammer stream, there is a bridge marked on the map as the New Bridge, Carved in the brickwork of the bridge as the date 1797. One presumes that the actual fort must have been clear of trees to a certain extent, when people lived there, but they would have naturally regenerated through medieval times. Many were cut down to fire the iron smelting industry. This was followed by the destruction of forests in the, South of England, when all available oak was used to build the great sailing ships for the Royal Navy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later case the demand for timber during the two World Wars.
By now there was no natural woodland left in the South of England and the pattern of growth that we find today reflects this. All the trees that grow here now, have been planted by man for one reason or another. This reason is usually commercial. In our woods, one area was planted about eighty years ago. We do not know who by, but we can see that they had a good knowledge of mixed forestry and what needs to be grown in order to make the environment good for wildlife. The main trees are oaks, which are host to many kinds of insects, thus providing food for birds and some mammals. Their acorns are another food source. There is a sprinkling of other species; thus the resulting berries, nuts and leaf canopy produce more food, cover and nest sites. Unfortunately, the remainder of the forest is quite different. It was owned commercial companies until quite recently. They planted it with species that were only useful for their value as a crop and in many cases harmful to wildlife. The monoculture system was used. Large areas of sweet chestnut were grown and coppiced. Such growth provides excellent posts, rails and firewood, but produces a thick canopy of leaves, which excludes the light from the forest floor. The leaves are large and when they fall in the autumn, take many years to break down. Thus no humus is returned to the soil and the nutrients are leached out. These leaves are also toxic and cause the soil to become even more acid. All this results in an almost total lack of plant growth beneath the chestnut. Where there is no plant growth, there are few insects and therefore few birds. Wildlife is almost totally absent and consists of little more than rabbits, whose main food is bark and young chestnut growth. They in turn provide food for foxes. The spring wild flower carpet, as seen in an oak wood, does not exist.
Furthermore, sweet chestnut is an introduced species. It is thought to have been brought to this country by the Romans from its home in Southern Europe. Introduced species are poor hosts to insects, which have their own hosts and do not move to a new environment. Hence, the insect life on chestnuts is minimal. There are very few birds present in such plantations and it is therefore a desert for wildlife. The commercial planting of woodlands means that few, if any, trees are allowed to grow to overmaturity. Old trees provide homes for hole nesting birds and mammals. Hollow trees provide roosts for bats. We have very few old trees in the Hammer Woods and this means an almost total absence of those species that require them for survival. Scots Pine had been planted Close together in tight rows. as is necessary for their commercial cultivation. Once again, this keeps the light off the forest floor and stops any plant life beneath. We have ten hectares planted with these trees, which are now about thirty years old. About eighty percent of Hammer Woods was a desert for wildlife. This is the normal pattern in modern farming and forestry, but it does not go well with conservationist ideas and the Buddhist accord with nature. Plans were made to change the situation and bring Hammer Wood back to life. This can only be a long job. It will take many decades to complete, but it is fascinating and already the first changes are taking place. It is really a great privilege that we at Chithurst have this chance to work with Nature, There are small corners of the woods - an acre here and an acre there - that have not been spoilt. Starting from these, we are now working to bring wildlife back to all our lands. Our management plan has two aims, which must run in parallel. Firstly, the Hammer Woods must be a place of peace and tranquillity in which local friends and people visiting the monastery are able to go for walks; and in which members of the Sangha can further their meditation practice. Towards this end, three kutis have been built. Monks and nuns can stay in these, living quietly just as was possible for them in Thailand. This they do, staying in some cases for up to three months and only returning to the monastery for the meal each day. It is hoped that twelve more such kutis will be built.
Secondly, the Buddhist idea of harmony with all forms of life means that the Hammer Woods must naturally be managed as a conservation area. To achieve this, wildlife must be induced to return to those areas from which it was driven when the environment became impossible for survival. To do this, as much sweet chestnut as possible has to be replaced.
Wood is used for cooking and heating at both Amaravati and Chithurst. The chestnut is useful for this scheme as it can supply the requirements for both monasteries. We follow the coppice system that has been practised in English woodlands for centuries. When a tree is cut down, new growth springs from the stump. This comprises many shoots. They in turn are cut when they reach the size required for their intended use. Poles, rails and firewood take about seventeen years of growth; walking sticks take three. Forestry contractors know what the current market requirements are. They buy all the wood in an area of forest where there is a sufficiency of the size that they need. They then clear that area of trees.
We manage our chestnut in this way. We sell an area to contractors. They cut all standing wood and sell it as the market demands. We buy back our firewood requirements. Should we cut our own wood using our untrained anagarikas we would face the certainty of chain saw accidents. This is obviously quite unacceptable.
Cutting is carried out in the winter; the area is cleared of all chestnut and we can then start bringing it back to life. Firstly, in the spring we must kill the chestnut stumps. This prevents a further cycle of growth. In May, when the first new shoots appear, each stump is treated with ammonium sulphide. This does not poison the ground; it just kills the tree and causes it to break down over the years, which in turn puts humus and nutrients back into the soil. With no overhead canopy, light reaches the ground and dormant seeds can germinate. Plants suddenly grow where for years there had been nothing. Then insects appear; life starts to move.
We want to make the woodlands resemble an old English broad leaved forest as much as possible. We plan our operations with this in mind. Tree planting costs money, so first we have to obtain grants. These we get from the Forestry Commission or various other country organisations. We have in the past also had generous help from the Royal Thai Embassy. Many other friends and supporters have given us young trees and we buy a wide range of species from a helpful tree nursery. Those that would have been natural in this locality in the past were mainly oak and ash, but many other species were present. These included the shrubs whose berries and nuts are so important as food for wildlife.
Each grew in its particular part of the forest according to its need: some at the edge or the middle, some at the top or the bottom of a hillside. Also, the proximity to water has to be taken into account. Planting has to conform to all these requirements.
Operations are planned well in advance and many people come to help us. In December 1987, during three afternoons, we planted two hundred and fifty trees. On the first day, thirty school children arrived. Their enthusiasm was marvellous and it was a very happy time for everybody. We have also had help from Thai supporters of the monastery and many local friends. During the winter of 1986/97 we planted eight hundred trees, but during the previous winter the total was eighteen hundred. Overall we have planted nearly four thousand. Our success rate of over ninety percent has been very encouraging, but, in spite of all our planting, it is a fact that from the conservation point of view, it is best to allow an area to regenerate naturally. This is being tried in a number of places, but rabbits and deer keep the growth trimmed. The cost of a wire netting fence is beyond us, but this is being looked into.
Already there is plant growth and this is bringing insects. Twenty three species of butterfly have been counted and there are more whose habitat requirements are such that it is only a matter of time before they appear. The small corners of the Wood where food plants still grow provide sources from which they spread: wildflowers grow in little pockets and must be induced to spread. The first to take in the newly cleared areas are foxgloves, which like the acid soil. Brambles grow, and both their flowers and berries are important food sources. Clumps of heather are starting to appear, but the rabbits keep these trimmed. Under the oaks grow wood sorrel, bluebells and wood anenome. A careful search will reveal golden archangel and in the grass along the forest roads grow scarlet pimpernel, tormentil and trailing St John's wort. All these and more show that life is there and will spread if we can give it the chance. In some places though, bracken is spreading. This can smother all other growth in the area and will prove a problem that must be kept in check.
The Scots pine are being thinned in a regular five yearly cycle. This means that the better trees are being left and the spacing increases between them. In time, there will be groves of strong mature trees as in Scotland or the New Forest. They will provide food and nest sites for many mammals and birds.
We have counted fifty eight bird species. This is not many, but as with butterflies, there are now a greater number about as the habitat improves. Small mammals increase as more plants provide more food and ground cover. Tawny owls now hunt for mice and voles over our young plantations. Bats are another mammal that suffers from modern pesticides and farming methods. They have become an endangered species. We have put up bat boxes for them to use as day roosts and it is hoped that at some time in the future a hibernation tunnel can be built.
The Hammer Stream runs through a deep flat bottomed valley, which floods in winter, and in the summer is a tangle of broken Willows and alders. This, at present is unmanaged and could be left as it is. It provides thick cover as a sanctuary for deer and other wildlife where there is little disturbance. The stream then flows into the Hammer Pond, which has an area of about three hectares. This is a man-made lake built for the iron industry, years ago. It was formed by building a dam wall about one hundred and fifty yards long across the valley bottom. It runs out over a wire into a pool, beside which kingfishers have regularly nested.
Unfortunately, over the years, our lake has silted up and continues to do so because of the loose sandy soil. Leaves from countless autumns have fallen and helped to choke it. This means that there is little water plant growth and thus little food. Our population of birds is small. consisting of just a few mallard and teal. As it is shallow, diving ducks seldom visit us and then only stay for long enough to find out that there is not the habitat that they require. Swans also find no food and there is no grazing along the banks for the local Canada geese in the Rother Valley. It is hoped to remedy this one day but the task and the cost would be enormous.
There is great hope in our Hammer Woods and a great chance to work for conservation. Perhaps in this forest, we can help to turn the current tide of destruction which is so affecting life on our planet today. As is being done by other conservation organisations, We can make one more oasis for wildlife. Also, we can create a place of peace and tranquillity for both Buddhists and others to enjoy. Perhaps we can leave something for future generations.