I am greatly saddened by the death of my friend, colleague, and patron, Sir Martin Wood aged 94 years.
Sir Martin Wood FRS was a visionary engineer, passionate conservationist, and a prolific philanthropist, who had an incalculable influence on my professional and personal life.
I first met Martin when, fresh from university, I started a one-year apprenticeship working with his first charity, the Northmoor Trust. A shared passion for trees and a keen interest in science brought us close together, and when Martin and his wife Audrey decided to gift the charity 80ha of farmland, he turned to me, asking whether I would be prepared to work for a few weeks to ‘come up with a plan’ for a new wood. Thirteen years later, we were still working on that plan together! The result was the vision for Paradise Wood, owned and managed by the Earth Trust, undertaking forestry research focussing on hardwood trees and the planting of tens of thousands of trees in South Oxfordshire and at other field trial sites across Britain.
Martin encouraged me to continue learning and developing my scientific interest in trees, which led ultimately to me completing my DPhil at Oxford University. Together, we frequently met with landowners and scientists seeking to improve knowledge and science surrounding hardwood forestry. We were both heavily involved in the formative years of an organisation that later became a separate charity, the Future Trees Trust.
I will never forget the day that I bumped into Martin when, as a young forester I had spent a hard winter’s day planting another 400 trees or so in the sticky soil of the young Paradise Wood. I was plastered in mud, cold, sodden, and exhausted. He asked how I was, and my response was something along the lines of it being a ‘miserable wet day’. The outcome was a playful (only just!) thump on the arm and the retort:
There’s no such thing as a miserable day – this is perfect weather for trees!Martin Wood
On another memorable occasion, we visited the unusual box woods found on the Prime Minister’s country estate at Chequers. Together, we dug up some 2,000 young box seedlings from an area of natural regeneration (with permission!) to translocate them to an experimental site.
After I left the Northmoor Trust (now Earth Trust), we kept in touch. In 2006, we had an important conversation. ‘Gabriel, what is the state of British forestry?’ asked Martin at some event we fortuitously found ourselves attending together. I described the huge volume of timber imports into Britain, the languishing unmanaged woodlands unfit for society or nature, and the wasteful creation of ‘green fluff’ under so-called woodland creation schemes. Ultimately, this led to familiar offer: if he were to fund a job for me, would I be prepared to put together some thoughts and information, and ‘come up with a plan’? This was another rare opportunity, not only to do what I cared passionately about, but to work closely with Martin again. I seized it enthusiastically. On my first day at the office, fresh from a family holiday in France, I found a handwritten note waiting for me on my empty desk:
“Bonjour Gabriel – greetings, a great day – we’re going to change the face of forestry in the British Isles!”Martin Wood, 8th May 2006
No quote could better capture Martin’s personal touch, nor his ambition and verve for life.
Three years later, in 2009, came the formal constitution of a new charity that Martin and I co-founded: Sylva Foundation – a charity aiming to revive Britain’s wood culture. We worked closely together, setting out the vision for this new organisation, and I think also in retrospect, its collaborative ethos and ‘can-do’ attitude.
Martin was an enthusiastic supporter of innovation, including in the charity’s use of information technology, even though its possibilities were very new to us all. He never suffered fools lightly, but was always courteous and supportive. Anyone sharing airy thoughts or using pompously technical language was always challenged to explain better, using plain English.
In 2012, I proposed to Sylva’s trustees the idea of a book to celebrate the 350th anniversary of John Evelyn’s landmark book, Sylva. Martin was among the most enthusiastic supporters of the idea. It was a great privilege that he agreed to write an Introductory Note to The New Sylva, published by Bloomsbury in 2014.
… a modern-day clarion call for the creation of a new wood culture that may help to ensure a sustainable and enjoyable future for us all.Martin Wood, Introductory Note to The New Sylva (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014)
In recent years, Martin’s health declined, but it was always a privilege to welcome Martin and Audrey to see our progress in developing the Sylva Wood Centre, or to visit their home and talk strategy over a cup of tea.
While Martin ultimately became a Patron of Sylva Foundation, at a personal level he was my long-term patron, investing his trust and passion for the environment through our relationship. In another sense, and with a touch of irony, Martin Wood was my guardian angel.
Spirit, genie or djinn Release you possession From the smokeless fire Now he holds your soul Safe among the sand Where nature attracts The greatest kind
From: The Martin Tree, Tall Trees Short Stories Vol21 (Wood Wide Works, 2021)