Friday, January 25, 2019

Hacking Back Trees

The other day the town maintenance crew was out doing their annual hacking back of the village trees. For years I have wondered why they do this. Sometimes it’s obvious, the cutting back creates a denser summer canopy, but for a lot of the trees it just seems like a lot of effort to leave us with ugly stumps for half of the year. Asking around for an explanation I’ve gotten vague answers, but nothing stated with confidence. The weekend after the gang was out there hacking away there was a short two page article in the Saturday Magazine explaining the historical background of this practice. Oh how I love the esoteric topics that come up in that Saturday journal.
Here’s the scoop.

The practice of lopping off the top of trees can be traced all the way back to the neolithic period in Great Britain. With a lot of time on their hands and few mechanical resources, folks figured out it was easier and more efficient to prune the trees around them, but not cut them down. By doing this the crown of the tree would come back fuller the following year and the yearling branches would be the perfect size and flexibility for weaving material. Remember at that time homes, roofs, fencing, and other stuff were built out of sticks. The scraps of cuttings made good forage for their farm animals. The best part was that they could count on the same crop the following year. They didn’t have to lug trees from further and further from home and they didn’t have to wait years for seedlings to grow.
In the Middle Ages the practice spread to Europe (goodness knows how historians can trace these sorts of agricultural migrations). Life continued to be hard, physical labor was cheap, and cutting back tree crowns was a handy, efficient renewable resource. Pruning could even make the trees healthier and more productive. Depending on the type of tree and how often the tree was pruned you could arrive with different results. Cutting a weeping willow or a mulberry tree every two to three years you got branches for weaving, food for the animals, and cuttings to plant for hedges. If you extended the pruning to every three to ten years the trees would be stimulated to produce more fruits (chestnuts, acorns). For the truly patient, a pruning between ten to twenty years would produce renewable wood for firewood and roofing. All of this without killing the tree. These trees were almost immortal. Well, immortal might be a tiny bit exaggerated, but by cutting a tree regularly one might triple the life expectancy of the tree. One thing that helped prolong their lives was that by never having a great canopy the risk of wind damage was diminished. (This fear of trees being toppled by the wind seems to be the only part of the history that remains imprinted in most of our neighbor’s feelings about trees. Even the insurance agency comes out to your home to inspect if there are any un-cutback trees too near to your house.)
Throughout Europe forest were managed in this style of severe pruning. Just south of us in the department of Sare (think Spanish border) there are the remnants of one such ancient “wood farm”. In the 1600’s two things came together that initiated the creation of this particular forest. The first was the need for wood to create coal for the local forgeries. The second was the need for forage to feed the large sheep and pig herds. The two industries worked hand in hand using every bit of cut wood. But by the mid 1800’s with more industrial techniques available forest management changed. Fast, tree gobbling clear cutting became the fashion to feed the growing demands of the industrial age. Somehow the locals of Sare were able to save the 42,000 trees in their forest from the chainsaw. However having escaped technology many of the trees were killed off in1906 by the same mildew that killed off the vineyards of France. Eventually the forest was left neglected and unproductive. Today there is a small association working to maintain this rare historical vestige of the 15,000 trees that remain. This association has dreams of reviving the old practices of the renewable forest farm.

Back in Bourdeilles the days are long gone when folks filled their winter days doing labor that was necessary for their survival. No one is counting on woven tree branches for a roof or fencing. Hardly anyone keeps farm animals and those that do have industrial sources of animal food. Yet, somehow keeping neighborhood trees pruned rests deep in the psyche of the villagers. So much so that they don’t even question the expense, time and effort of the town maintenance crew. Most folks couldn’t imagine having the trees with branches reaching for the sky. That big tree canopy would block the view or catch the wind and fall on the house. Walking the streets on these grey winter days I appreciate how the strength of these gnarled trees compliments the power of the stone of our small village in France. So, for this particular quirk of culture, I can now stop questioning and just accept it as a tradition — like a local.

1 comment:

Mary Jo said...

Glad to know the history. I wondered why they do that--it will always look weird to me. I remember learning about coppicing as a way to generate twigs and that makes sense when you need the twigs, but the other advantages were not obvious to me. I saw these along the waterfront on Lake Como years ago and felt sorry for the trees which I felt yearned to spread their branches and form a beautiful graceful large canopy. Thanks for the info, and even though it looks strange to me, I can accept the tradition and now better understand why people accept that look as normal. Very interesting post.