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« Pollarding | Main | Elizabeth Jane Howard: 1923-2014 »
Wednesday
Jan082014

Coppicing

Coppiced lime, Dunwich Heath, England.

Why do I feel I need to know about coppicing?  Because trees grow, often in the wrong places in a small yard, and one must do something about them or they will take out your foundation.  

We are a country of forests and timber, most of which goes for dimensional lumber and pulp.  However, in countries with hardwood forests, ancient forests that have cohabited with centuries of settlement, forests are managed.  

Coppicing is where a single-trunk tree which normally would fractally divide and subdivide from tree trunk to twig, is cut off at the base allowing shoots to sprout from the still-living roots.  These shoots differ from the original tree trunk, in that there are many of them, they are thin and straight and, because of the vigour of the root system, literally shoot up without dividing.  Then they are harvested, which is interesting, as there was, and is, a need for straight pieces for rails, poles; whippy shoots for wickerwork: this is using wood without re-shaping it in a mill.  

A coppiced tree can last for centuries, perpetually young if harvested regularly with none of the shoots actually allowed to mature into a full tree.  I'm sure there is a rather brutal metaphor there, if one cared to work it out.  It is a dying practice, the need for hop-poles and thatching spars sadly diminished.  Ray Arnatt once showed me his car from the 1920s he'd brought from England when he emigrated, which had a wooden frame and was sheathed in painted canvas: the frame was bentwood, like bentwood chairs, steamed into shape.  This would have been coppiced wood, probably ash — strong and inviolate, the integrity of the whole cross-section of a tree complete.

In comparison, our clear cut treatment of softwood forests seems shockingly impatient.  It is a habit we do not investigate, perhaps because we don't inhabit our forests with any kind of intimacy, they are a hinterland to our cities or our agricultural territories, a backdrop we don't know very well.   Aboriginal peoples knew the forests well, they had those centuries of cohabitation, but the proportion of people to trees was low.  There were many trees they did not know individually either.  

But we have the tools and technology to harvest full trees and make them into any kind of shape we want – it is a luxury of excess product and we are profligate with it.

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