Warm weather around Easter put an abrupt stop to the woodcutting season here, and I have been noting this year’s effects on the town and the surrounding countryside. Two much-loved smaller trees are gone, but there are also comforting signs that the neglect of some of my favourite places is of a benign sort, and not the mark of abandonment or – worse – imminent redevelopment. It has been fascinating to see decisions being made which will have aesthetic consequences well past my children’s lifetimes.
Lund is finally getting round to taking down some of the standing dead trees within the town boundaries, prompted by a large poplar which nearly crushed a baby and toddler as it fell over. After much wailing and anguish in the local paper money has been found for some long-needed preventative medicine, albeit at the cost of adding rotten willows and poplars to the already extensive inventory of diseased elms needing attention.
The gardeners in the large nineteenth century graveyard which abuts our house on two sides came and took out their last few remaining elms, but gratuitously saw fit to also chop down a harmless but lovely thirty-four year old hornbeam. We are hoping they will lack the resources or the determination to come and grind out the stump, giving the tree a chance to send up shoots and live on. There is hope: a similar-sized maple cut down outside my office last year managed to put on five feet of new growth in as many months before the groundsmen got round to grubbing it out for good.
Nobody really knows why trees in the temperate zones evolved the ability to recover from trauma by starting new growth from dormant buds hidden under the bark, but the same mechanism that is thought to have saved early trees from the depredations of megafauna, disease, and windthrow now serves to frustrate the tidy gardener, just as it frustrated clearance-minded settlers from the Stone Age to colonial times. Before American landscape painters discovered the barren West, their tame foregrounds were almost always populated by a field of stumps. The difficulty of eradicating ironbark eucalypts in Australia meant their remains were employed as markers in the landscape long after agrarian use had been established. The phrase ‘back of the Black Stump’ is still used to indicate land beyond the outer rim of civilisation.
Sometimes a tree’s resilience is used to advantage: without it, garden favourites like knotted limes, formal topiary, and espaliered fruit trees would not exist. Mostly though, woodcutting is seen as a necessary evil, a winter chore to keep gardens and parks looking as planned, or a way of dealing with trees which have become inconveniently large, unstable, or old.
This attitude is a consequence of a deeper-held misconception: that deciduous hardwoods cannot be a continuously productive asset. In the contemporary urban imagination to ‘use’, say, an oak, means to let it grow to the desired size, and then to cut it down entirely, planting a new tree – or a housing estate – where it stood, and leaving no trace of the original tree. Woodcutting indicates an emotional, end-of-times event, associated with the destruction of something known since childhood; an irreversible step along a path that leads away from the diversity and complexity of free nature to the monotony of ordered domestication.
Quite apart from the fact that no tree in Western Europe has been free of human influence for at least two thousand years – there is no ‘free’ nature here – this way of looking at trees ignores the existence of a once extensive industry based upon regular cycles of cutting and re-growth for the production of small-scale timber, firewood and leaf fodder. Like working dogs, these working trees look different to their domesticated pet cousins such as pruned garden trees, or trees subjected to a crown reduction late in life, and their physical structure and ecology, and the knock-on effects on the surrounding landscape, are all characteristic.
Jacob Epstein Glade in Epping Forest c. 1945
There are two main shapes to regularly-cut trees. The first is the coppice, where the tree is cut down to the ground, and the new shoots form a ring that grows outward with each cutting. The second is the pollard, where the tree is cut back to a level above the teeth of grazing animals so as to protect the new shoots. Cutting can be as often as every two or three years to produce sticks for weaving or other craft use, or up to fifteen or twenty years for small-scale timber and long-burning firewood. There is also ‘shredding’, a catchall word describing any cutting back of side branches that stops short of outright pollarding.
All these forms of cutting keep the tree in a juvenile state. For pollards, this can prolong its life to two or three times the span of uncut, ‘standard’ trees, and a coppiced tree can live essentially forever. Allowing the limbs to grow too thick makes it harder or impossible for the tree to recover from the cutting, and the top-heavy tree becomes susceptible to rot and wind, so ancient pollards and coppices are indicators of long periods of continuous human care. The decline of traditional underwood management since the Second World War has meant that many woodlands which have been in dynamic equilibrium since the Middle Ages or earlier are now full of ‘overstood’ coppice, or ‘candelabra’ pollards with top-heavy, thick-boughed crowns. Re-starting the cutting cycle risks simply killing the tree, which leaves owners with an interesting dilemma: renovating the aspect of the woodland which is truly ancient risks losing it altogether.
Stephen Thompson After the Storm
From the British Library
Individual ancient pollards are celebrated for their size, odd shapes and sheer age. The life-prolonging effects of pollarding means that the oldest trees with the largest girths are often pollards, or ex pollards grown out. A celebrity worship has built up around individual trees – the Thomas Pakenham “Remarkable Trees” franchise is one notable aspect – but that harvesting from entire stands of pollards was once relatively common is poorly appreciated, even in places like Epping Forest which penetrates deep into metropolitan London, and where large stands of pollard hornbeams and beeches are still to be found.
Coppices have if anything fared even worse. ‘Copse’ has come to mean any small wood, and attempts to re-start the coppice cycle in ancient woods are seen as pure vandalism. North of Lund, where the underlying moraine turns from lime to acid is a band running across the country once known as ‘risbygden’ – the withy lands. Here, sandwiched between the rich southern farmland and the true evergreen woods further north, was a region that provided the wood-poor farmers further south with the underwood products – particularly fencing and dead hedging – they did not grow for themselves. Vast areas of sixteenth and seventeenth century maps are covered with ‘surskog’, word for a type of wood whose meaning and etymology is unknown, which is almost certainly coppice, although nobody knows for sure. Even more remarkably, it is not even known which species of tree were grown in these woods.
The odd man out is willow. Historically, pollard willows and coppiced osier for basketry were exceptional in laws and customs compared to other trees, and that exception continues today. In my county, Skåne, pollard willows are everywhere: with rows of old, flayed handlike ones marking the fields, roads and watercourses as they were one to two hundred years ago, and livid-stemmed new ones around houses, paddocks and estates of new builds. Osier is still grown on a small scale for basket making, but it is also farmed like an arable crop in dense stands of ‘short rotation coppice’ to produce biofuel. However, new pollards of other species are very hard or impossible to find, and non-willow coppices are almost entirely accidentals.
There is a class aspect to the neglect of pollards and coppices. The spreading oak tree is a rich man’s tree. It symbolises stability, reliability and longevity, but also wealth. You have to be rich to allow the tree room to grow, and to forego the income from regular cutting. Cut trees represent the poor commoner, so except for Versailles-derived models, they do not figure in the aspirational gardens of the growing urban classes. They are mostly ignored in literature and art too, a prejudice which has been inherited wholesale by photography.
There is also a utilitarian logic to this forgetfulness: although traditional practices do live on in the form of craft-fayre handicrafts like wickerwork baskets or cleftwood fencing, plastics and cheap steel have taken over the roles of most traditional woodland products, and burning wood as fuel is now for the most part either a secondary way to heat a home or purely decorative. Cutting leaf fodder for grazing animals is regarded as a hopelessly backward practice, suitable only for feeding third world goats in lands with no grass. In Northern Europe, we simply no longer have any practical need that can be serviced by economically viable cyclical harvesting.
However, nobody seems to have told the trees: not only do the older ones retain the mark of our vanished attitudes in the patterns of their branches and the spacings of their annual rings, but trees of all ages carry on reviving and sprouting wherever they are given the chance. Low-maintenance verges on roads and railways are the new coppices in the landscape, as they favour quick-growing trees which can survive hacking down by mechanical flail every few years or so. Deliberately created modern pollards are rare, and tend to be in gardens or parks, but the need to maintain free passage for delivery lorries and fire engines past the spandrels of the suburban road system can also lead to regular pruning back to the stem.
My personal interest in these trees is twofold. First, the older trees are telltales of a change in land use. Grown-out windbreak pollards around a farmhouse tell a story of changing fashions as well as the shift from on-site to off-site energy production. Groups of similar trees amid housing developments show graphically how the town has swallowed up the surrounding farmland, and the thickness of their candelabra boughs dates the estate as surely as architectural styles or papers in the local records office. Coppices are largely eradicated, but the few old stools I have found are unmistakable signs of human activity in the nominal wild.
Secondly, current attitudes betray a wealth of unspoken assumptions about the landscape, the purpose and value we put upon it, and how we see ourselves within it. These include the aspirational habit of only growing – or photographing – prestigious standard trees; the selective nature of a so-called tradition which only remembers one species, willow; and the modern cult of self-centred nature worship, with it’s highly codified rules about beauty and how it should be portrayed.
Trees are the part of the landscape which most closely matches the timescales of human memory and myth making. They show their history in their structure and distribution, and they preserve in visible form the consequences of decisions made by many previous generations. Their survival, unchanged yet ever changing, can be regarded as a minor miracle, or an accidental by-product of the art of the possible compounded over centuries. Either way, they are signs that deserve to be read and understood, at the intuitive level, and the intellectual.