From One Tree, Many: On the Ancient Art of Coppicing

Each of the four clock faces on London’s Big Ben is 23 feet in diameter, each minute hand 14 feet long. Not 100 miles away in Gloucestershire is an older, bigger circle that marks a surer, deeper time. It does not need to be wound. A flock of starlings or a heavy snowfall, settling on a minute hand, won’t slow it. It is never down for maintenance. It consists of a ring of living stools from a single linden tree—knots of slender stumps, eight to twelve of them in each stool.

I stood in the middle of them, turning slowly around. There were 12 stools, not quite as regularly spaced as the hours on a clock face. They marked time not by hours but by centuries. Every 20 years, the trunks that grew up from these stools had been cut back nearly to the ground, then allowed to grow again.

This living ring is more than three times the diameter of each face of Big Ben. Where I stood at its center had once been the tree’s original solitary trunk. With each cut, the stems sprouted back out from the stump along the margins of the previous trunk, so that over centuries, they made a widening fairy ring that genetically was still a single tree.

The year before my visit, more than 100 long, straight trunks from the stools had been harvested, each about 20 to 25 feet tall. The trunks were bound standing together nearby into what looked like the world’s largest sheaf of wheat.

Big Ben is not quite two centuries old, but this tree has turned two thousand. One hundred times, it has had its rising trunks cut back to just above ground level. The tall poles were harvested for building, for charcoal, for firewood, for fiber to make ropes. Again and again. I was flabbergasted when I saw it. How can it be, I thought, that a linden so often cut and manipulated can be among the oldest living things in Britain?

Maybe I should not have been surprised. Trees are functionally immortal. In an ancient redwood, for instance, every year the Methuselah trunk gives rise to hundreds of thousands of brand new babies at the extremities of the twigs. As long as the old one can bring water to the babes and the babes can feed sugar to the aged mass, there is no reason that the tree should die.

Trees live simply. They have only three organs—root, stem, and leaf—and only about two dozen possible patterns of growth. They live by repeating this simple module in their chosen pattern, from the scale of a trunk to that of the smallest twig. There is no reason why this reiteration cannot go on forever. Typically, Methuselah breaks or falls, leading to its failure, but even then, the creature may sprout again.

Not only did a coppice or pollard woodland have longer-lived trees, it was also a better habitat than the uncut forest.

A tree is designed to live a long time, but why should it live longer when people cut it? Most history says the opposite: Once, there were pristine forests, the standard version reads. Then, people began to cut them. As human technologies improved, the woods fared worse and worse. In this view, the destruction began about nine thousand years ago, with the Neolithic stone axe. This tool—laboriously chipped, shaped, and polished—was as different from the Mesolithic axe as a knife from a bludgeon. It was sharp and durable.

For the first time, people could harvest branches and, indeed, whole standing stems of trees. With short, sharp chipping strokes, a good axeman could fell a twelve-inch diameter oak in about half an hour. The Proto-Indo-European homonym varna—which meant both the noun “tree” and the verb “to cut”—suggests how important the axe and the wood it could harvest became to cultures around the world. Did the cutting kill the woods?

It did not, because the axe met the sprout. It turned out that when you cut many trees to the base or cut off branches at a height sufficient to keep the sprouts away from browsing herds—processes that in English came to be called coppice and pollard—they simply sprouted again, creating more new trees, more new branches than you had when you started.

It may be that the wonderful hazel—whose nut was the staple of Mesolithic Europe and which naturally grew in a multi-stem, repeatedly sprouting form—inspired this learning. If you had eight stems to begin with and you cut four, you would get back all eight, along with three or four new ones.

Thus began around the world a practice not of extraction and imposition but of grateful exchange. Together, people and trees made a new kind of woodland, full of specimens like the ancient Gloucestershire lime tree. The trees that had been cut lived not a shorter but a longer time, often a far longer time. For millions of years, they had lived by repeating their simple three-part module—root, stem, and leaf—by supplying new parts to repair damage done by storms, falling limbs, or pests and pathogens.

They were ready and able to respond to cutting. Furthermore, the repeated harvest on a regular cycle of three to twenty years removed older stems that might have had structural problems or potentially lethal infections, allowing the plant to begin afresh.

Not only did a coppice or pollard woodland have longer-lived trees, it was also a better habitat than the uncut forest. Two or three times the number of plant, insect, bird, and mammal species occupied the human-altered woods. At Bradfield Woods in Suffolk, Pete Fordham has managed for three decades a coppice that has only briefly gone out of cycle. While most such woods were lost in the UK before the Second World War, this one persisted because it provided the handles for a rake factory.

The business only went belly-up in 1964, so when Fordham and his colleagues started to cut the wood again in 1982, the trees were only a little beyond their normal 12- to 15-year cutting cycle. It was the first time that a cut had been missed in 900 years.

Illustration by Lina Müller and Luca Schenardi

When they began to coppice again, a vast seed bank of ancient woodland plants saw the light of day. Hundreds of wildflower and grass species rushed into the newly opened spaces. You do not clear-cut an entire coppice woodland, Fordham explained to me. Rather, you work in stages, a section at a time.

In this way, the youngest, newest sprouts stand cheek by jowl with 15-year-old veterans. A wide-open meadow with new growing stems adjoins an area where the trees are beginning to limit the light that reaches the ground, and that adjoins another where the canopies have covered the entire space, making an even shade.

A coppiced woodland is divided into sections by a system of ditches and banks: The earth dug out to a depth of three feet or more around the edge of each part is thrown up to make a tall bank on the inside. Each piece is called a coupe, sale, cant, fell, burrow, or hagg and is between half an acre and five acres in size. When first cut, the land looks stone dead, littered with stumps.

The very next year and for two or three more, the sunlit dirt blooms. At Queen’s Wood in London, for example, the gardeners counted 39 plant species in a hagg when they coppiced it in 2009. Three years later, the same acre had added 156 more species. Most of them had waited, dormant, for years, since the last cut. Some jumped into the cant from nearby gardens.

In the fourth year, the young poles of the re-sprouting coppice began to shadow the ground. Life changed in their shade. The bramble and raspberry that had sprouted with the sun-loving flowers—first in little spiny fingers, then in sharp feathery branchlets—suddenly covered every bit of open ground. By year’s end, the meadow-like landscape had become a thicket. Not a square inch of ground could be seen. Two more years passed, the poles growing taller and spreading wider, the spiny shrubs rambling over everything beneath them.

By about the seventh year, the spreading tops of the coppice trees closed the canopy. They shaded out both raspberry and bramble; the two disappeared even more quickly than they had come. Under this canopy, the ground opened again, and the shade-dwellers emerged. Some of these, like herb Paris and daffodils, returned, but now they were joined by bluebells, dog’s mercury, wood anemone, ivy, and an occasional insistent bramble.

There are 27,000 species of insects now in Britain. Half of them depend on human-altered landscapes.

There were only about 70 plant species in the closed coppice wood, a third of those that had grown in sun. Under the regime of the closed canopy, these plants would grow on until the coppice was felled again.

Like the plants, the birds tended to prefer one or two of the woodland stages. The tree pipit, whitethroat, dunnock, and yellowhammer thrived in early-stage coppice. The thicket stage with its thick ground cover attracted large numbers of nesting birds, including wrens, robins, nightingales, blackbirds, warblers (especially the garden and willow warblers), bullfinches, blackcaps, and chiffchaffs.

Tits and robins loved the later pole stage. The nightingale and cuckoo, the most frequently mentioned birds in British poetry, are coppice lovers. The cut woods were not only a resource for fuel and tools, but for the imagination.

There are 27,000 species of insects now in Britain. Half of them depend on human-altered landscapes. About a fifth of these live in deadwood, which, though common in pollard woods, old orchards, and hedgerows, is rare in the fells, the haggs, and panels. Many of the rest thrive in coppice, especially the butterflies. Adults of a species often feed on the nectar of many flowers, but the larvae feed only on one or a small group of species. Without these flowers, the species cannot breed.

The Duke of Burgundy, the chequered skipper, and the fritillaries are all declining with the decline of coppice. The fritillaries, for example, depend upon the dog violets, except for the heath fritillary, whose young can only feed on cowwheat. Both plants are found in newly cut coppice panels up to three or four years old. Many of the species cannot disperse across wide areas of the land, so the rhythmic cutting of coppice fells—cyclically renewing their favored habitat—is crucial to their survival.

Coppice and pollard woodlands were far richer in species than uncut woods. Many of these forests depended upon land that was held in common. Members of a community had rights—well regulated by law and custom—to use specific parts of the landscape: to harvest wood or fruit, to dig limestone or iron ore, or to pasture their animals. During the 18th and 19th centuries in England, most of this common land was expropriated during the enclosure movement, converted into private farm fields.

In Spain, however, the effort to take the common land—called desalojamientos, or “throwing them off the places”—did not always succeed. In some places, like the 22 square miles of the township of Leitza in Navarra, the commons have never died. (The current law of the commons there runs to twelve legal-size pages.) There, you can see the ancient system, the woodlands at the heart of it still intact. It fed both the belly and the spirit.

Wherever there is a grove of young ash . . . you will find nearby the winter quarters of the sheep and the shepherd.

The town’s chief monument is not a church or a castle. It is the laundry. The carefully preserved elliptical structure is open to the air above, the walls pierced with large open windows. Inside is a basin punctuated on its raised edge with 15 smooth, rectangular stone surfaces, each angled into the basin at a pitch that makes scrubbing easy. Beside each is a ledge for the wash bucket. The housewife put the dirtiest clothes—usually the sheets—into the bottom of the bucket, then the more lightly soiled things.

On top of the clothes went a filter cloth. Onto the cloth, she poured a few cups of ashes, made from the stems of pollarded beech and ash trees, sprinkling bay leaves on top. She poured hot water into the bucket through the ashes and the leaves. The ash created a slurry of potassium carbonate, while the bay left a pest-repellent perfume. The hot solution soaked for hours, renewed once or twice with more hot water.

Then, she released it into the common basin through holes in the bottom of the washtub. The wastewater would be either reused for someone else’s clothes or taken away for other housecleaning tasks. The clean sheets and clothes were set out on the grass of the steep pastures to dry and whiten in the sun.

On the same steep hills, you can find the shepherd’s huts and sheepfolds by looking for pollarded ash trees. Wherever there is a grove of young ash—their new sprouting stems harvested annually to make winter fodder for the animals—you will find nearby the winter quarters of the sheep and the shepherd.

All around the hillsides were much larger pollards, a few of them oaks, but many chestnuts, and most of them beeches. These had gone out of their 20-year cycle long ago, so their sprouting stems rose into the sky from the short, massive trunks, longer and thicker than the bass pipes of an organ. Had the land been converted to conifer plantations, these pollards would all have been gone, but they persisted on the commons.

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From Emergence Magazine (No. 7, Trees). Reproduced with permission.. Copyright © 2020 by William Bryant Logan.