A towering figure in the forestry world for many decades, John Bede Howell OBE was renowned for his encouragement and sound advice on how to manage woods sustainably and profitably. An RFS Gold Medal winner and recipient of the Peter Savill Award, he was also a frequent contributor to Forestry Journal. Here former editor Margaret Lunn pays a personal tribute.

Forestry Journal: Bede Howell pictured during an educational visit to Blenheim (courtesy of the Royal Forestry Society).Bede Howell pictured during an educational visit to Blenheim (courtesy of the Royal Forestry Society).

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Bede Howell OBE, who contributed many articles to this publication over the years. He had an unending energy and commitment to all aspects of forestry and woodland management, and was never afraid to challenge those in authority. Enough will be said by others about his expertise and professionalism. Here I just want to talk about my own discussions with Bede.

My first encounter with Bede Howell was back in 2009. He sent me an email, very formally addressed ‘Dear sub-editor’, on the subject of a recent branch-drop event, suggesting that “as this phenomenon is of increasing concern to us who have to make decisions about big trees, your magazine should seek advice, on a simple pro-forma, to be posted on the Forestry Journal website, where professional tree people can swiftly report similar cases”. While Bede’s authoritative tone nearly had me jumping to attention and assuring him I’d get onto it right away, I had to reply that I did not feel FJ was the right vehicle for such an endeavour. I’m not sure if my response didn’t go down too well or if he just didn’t have a need to contact me further, as it was to be another four years before we picked up our conversation.

In November of 2013 Bede contacted then-editor Mark Andrews offering to report on a conference dealing with ash dieback in continental Europe and informing us what his rate per word would be. The rate quoted was quite eye-watering, though Mark did comment at the time: “Well, he knows Tanarus, what do you expect?” (I do hope Tanarus reads that!)

Mark was never one for dealing with admin or finance, so replying to Bede (and negotiating a much-reduced rate) was delegated to me. His reply to me this time had no salutation and simply said: “Madame, your clarity is excellent.”

So began seven years of correspondence, and a mutual respect for our differing areas of expertise. I even progressed to being addressed as Margaret, rather than Madame! I will confess there were times when Bede’s emails had me reaching for the dictionary, or searching Google to clarify his references to the Mikado or the use of Iota subscript and the dative singular of masculine nouns or adjectives.

It was around this time that Bede began – as he put it – “translating into foresters’ English” the outstanding revolutionary French book on growing oak, Le Chêne Autrement by Jean Lemaire. The resulting tome, Oak – Fine Timber in 100 Years: Growing High-Quality Oak Within a Century, was published to much acclaim in June 2014.

It was also around this time we learned that apart from our mutual respect for the written word we had something else in common. We had both experienced similar medical issues. Bede was quite open about his treatment (the practicalities, not the details) and, like myself, maintained a positive attitude to it. For the youngsters among you, the next sentence will make no sense whatsoever, but in one email Bede compared me to a character from the famous wartime comedy show ITMA with Tommy Handley (for the avoidance of doubt, it was before my time too). “One of the characters was a miserable cuss of a woman [thanks Bede!] called Mona Lott, whose standard line was, ‘It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going’. Congratulations to you on your evident cheerfulness.” It was this personal touch that summed him up.

At this point we had never met in person. Plans were made for Bede to call into the FJ stand at the 2014 APF show in order that we could both put a face to the name. Alas, as is often the case at the APF, we missed each other. Thus faceless communications continued.

It was at the 2016 APF that we finally managed to meet up. Bede and his brother Columb made a point of visiting our stand and, fortunately, I was about this time. Bede was everything I had expected and more. Chatting to him, it was quite clear the humour that pervaded his emails was very much what he was about. Bede always had a witty – and sometimes melancholy – metaphor to fit every circumstance and persuasive argument he needed to get across. I was, as I’m sure others were, often in awe of this very learned man.

In December 2017, after having met with Bede and Columb again at that year’s Confor Woodland Show at Longleat, I was touched that he took the time to send an email with the following line: “Are you familiar with HMS Pinafore? One song includes Captain Corcoran singing (to his crew), ‘You’re very very good and be it understood I command a right good crew’. You have assembled, and retained, a good posse of contributors which is why people learn so much from FJ.”

I have been re-reading seven years’ worth of emails and chuckled just as wholesomely at them this time round as I did the first. I wish I could replicate them here for you to also enjoy but, alas, that is not possible.

The last time I saw Bede in person was at the 2018 APF. Although physically quite poorly – but in fine spirits – he took the time to come to the FJ stand especially, just to say hello to myself and the team. This was a measure of the man he was, and the man I will remember.

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