A Magical Wood Pile, Devon Snails and Garden Adventures

When we bought our old cottage in remote north Devon, we also acquired a gardener. It feels a bit weird having an employee of sorts, but he’s been maintaining the plot for almost two decades, visiting once a week to do the heavy stuff, mowing the lawn and so on, and he knows the place inside out. When I asked him how old our enormous firewood pile was, he said it was here when the previous owners first took him on.  
The wood shed is in our little wood, further down the garden, so we decided to move the wood pile nearer the shed to a drier, more convenient spot. The first step involved gently removing the top layers – great chunks of mossy tree trunk – one by one, then stepping away for a few days at a time so any insect, reptile, amphibian and mammal residents could safely move out, potentially relocating to live inside a large piece of land art I made from a load of fallen rotting wood, pictured below.

It worked beautifully. The only folk left living in the pile by the time we’d reached the bottom layer were lots of Devon snails. The colourful old English kind, not the big brown ones the Roman’s introduced. We have very few of those, maybe because the Romans didn’t get this far. Devon was not as Romanised as Somerset and Dorset, and evidence of Roman occupation is mostly limited to the Exeter area, more than fifty miles away, where the invaders’ ancient walls are still in evidence.
We had English snails back in our old home county, Sussex, but they were outnumbered many times over by the Roman ones. Over here English snails are the norm, and the sheer beauty of their shells has to be seen to be believed. Some are bright, vivid canary yellow, others striped in deep brown, black and yellow. Some are the most gorgeous bright salmon pink, others a darker, richer pink embellished with chocolate brown lines. A few are pure white, some a pure pale brown, and others verge on orange.
I also spotted a lizard, something I never saw in Brighton or rural Sussex and certainly never came across in my original and much chillier homeland, the industrial North East. We’ve actually seen several common lizards in our Devon garden, AKA viviparous lizards, unusual because they give birth to live young rather than lay eggs. They’re lovely little things, about the same size as a large newt with heavily-textured scales. But the most amazing thing about our wood pile was the condition of the wood itself.
You create a six foot high heap of firewood, four feet wide and ten long, then neglect it for almost two decades in a place where it rains hard a lot of the time. What happens? I was expecting nothing more than a load of wet sawdust and splinters, but everything apart from the top layers was completely dry, in excellent condition and ready to burn. Amazing. Or maybe it isn’t. Perhaps that’s just what wood piles do?

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