After gathering dust for more than a decade, See Through News is making unique footage showcasing an exemplary zero-carbon life available – for free.
Meet Ben Law, if you haven’t already
Not everyone can put his name to his face, but Ben Law is well known in the UK. Grand Designs is a TV series about architecture and homes, each episode telling the story of a self-build project. Since its first broadcast in 1999, there have been more than 200 episodes, often repeated. The one everyone remembers, and the one consistently voted their favourite-ever episode, featured Ben Law.
His name may not ring a bell, but if you say ‘The Man Who Built His House In The Woods’ on Grand Designs, almost everyone will know who you mean. They remember all manner of details, from planning permission to technical challenges to personal drama, as he and a few local mates upgraded his residence from tent to home.
The design was traditional, but no one had built one for centuries. A traditional roundwood frame, standing on flat stones, with timber planks covering lime-plastered straw bales. Ben’s almost zero-budget home in his workplace, Prickly Nut Wood in south east England, was not only stunningly beautiful. It was made almost entirely from materials gathered from within a mile of where it was raised.
More than just a pretty house
But there’s much more to Ben Law than a natural builder. Few would dispute his status as Britain’s greatest living woodsman, and one of the world’s most influential sustainability exemplars.
As well as building, Ben uses his hard-acquired traditional craft skills to make a sustainable living in the modern world. His know-how was hard-won from old masters trained to jealously guard their skills. He spent years seeking out old woodsman around the country, who’d be happy to chat but would put their tools down as soon as he appeared.
Unlike traditional woodsmen, however, Ben wants to pass on his knowledge as widely as possible. The sustainable world in which the old woodsman acquired their skills is now long gone. The rapacious consumer culture that has replaced it needs to learn their sustainable secrets more urgently than ever.
Ben teaches courses, writes books, and every year, takes on two apprentices who share his woodland year, coppicing sweet chestnut for everything from pea sticks to construction timber, building locally for others, making charcoal, harvesting fruits of the forest.
Sustainability as aspiration, not sacrifice
Ben knows his acres of Sussex woodland intimately. Coppicing is one of the few human interventions that symbiotically enhances biodiversity and nature, rather than parasitically destroying it.
Even more importantly, Ben is the kind of soft-spoken, deep-thinking expert who makes a sustainable, zero-carbon lifestyle an aspiration, not a sacrifice. We may not all be able to live off a few acres of woodland, but we can all learn from how Ben makes his living by working with, rather than against, nature
Ben’s real-world reality show
Throughout the year, young people write to Ben asking to be considered as one of the two apprentices he takes on every year. They have many reasons, but in some way or other see the value in spending a year in the woods learning from, and helping, Ben during his woodland year.
Every September, Ben invites a few of the most promising ones to his home in Prickly Nut Wood, for a week of woodland activities. He observes them carefully, before selecting the two winners.
This is not a straightforward decision. The stakes are much higher than in some confected Saturday night TV entertainment format. Ben has to balance who he thinks will gain the most from the experience. He has to imagine how they might get on with each other. He has to consider how he’ll get on with them, and if they’re tough enough to endure the challenges of living for a year alone in off-grid caravans in the middle of the woods. They will become his Apprentices for the next annual woodland cycle.
The Grand Designs episode proved how warmly viewers responded to Ben’s simple, natural, lifestyle. Major broadcasters also clocked that Ben’s apprentice scheme is a ready-made, real-world reality show. One by one, they approached him with proposals to film a year in his life, but Ben is a private person, unswayed by celebrity. One by one, he rejected their proposals, finding them too sensationalist, and not focusing enough on what he considered important. Ben wanted to communicate that a sustainable lifestyle is a complex pleasure, not a simple penance. They wanted to transform his daily life into ratings gold.
A different kind of filmmaker
In 2012, in a previous incarnation as an independent documentary filmmaker, See Through News Founder Robert Stern approached Ben with his idea for Ben Law’s Woodland Year. He thought Ben Law’s Woodland Year was quite interesting enough without any reality-show bells and whistles. He drew up a proposal from his documentary production company Litmus Films.
Ben considered Robert’s proposal carefully, asked a few questions, had a think, watched other Litmus Films productions on its YouTube channel. After due consideration, Ben concluded he liked the proposal, and trusted Robert to stick to it. He agreed to let Robert’s production company Litmus Films follow him and his apprentices over the course of a woodland year. Though a private person used to his own company in the woods, Ben is also passionate about passing on his knowledge and thoughts.
With broadcasters uninterested in his non-sensationalist approach, Robert tried to crowdfund Ben Law’s Woodland Year. The crowdfunding video was widely shared, generating excitement and enthusiasm for the project. But the kind of people who wanted to see Ben Law’s Woodland Year made tended not to have deep pockets and a lot of cash to spare. The campaign fell short.
Knowing this was a unique opportunity, Robert decided to continue filming self-funded. He wanted to capture the entire annual cycle, the rhythm by which all foresters and woodsmen have lived throughout human history, and he knew there wouldn’t be a second chance.
He went back to the broadcasters. Even with a whole year ‘in the can’, removing all production risk, no broadcaster was interested. Robert reluctantly shelved the project, but in the knowledge that the nature of Ben’s craft make both his lifestyle, and the lessons we can draw from it, timeless.
A sustainable project recycled
More than a decade on, this unique footage is finally being revived.
See Through News is a zero-budget social media network, with no bank account. In 2012, broadcasters were the only option for serious money, facilities and audiences to make producing Ben Law’s Woodland Year a practical option.
A decade on, the Internet has changed all that. Advances in digital technology mean a film student with a laptop can do things that would have stretched a professional post-production studio a decade ago. See Through News has a broad and deepening pool of expert volunteers, along with a global reach via its social media network that rivals some national broadcasters.
So we’re not asking for any money. But if you like what you see, please support this project by sharing it widely among your own social media. network, subscribing to the See Through News YouTube channel.
If you have the editing and digital marketing skills to turn this footage into shareable content for today’s platforms, and would like to help, email email@example.com.
You can also support See Through News by checking out our many other free projects at www.seethroughews.org. At first sight they may appear diverse, even unconnected. What could a competition to distribute free supercomputer-grade cloud computing to Global South researchers have in common with a Superhero Drawing Competition, a guerrilla gig involving ukuleles and bagpipes, and a podcast about the only deep-sea navigator in Mongolia have in common?
The answer is that they’re all different first steps towards the same Goal: