Mark in Brno Czech Republic, Monday February 28
After having stayed up till about 2 working the night before, I slept in about as late as I could before I went down to catch the tail end of the continental breakfast the hotel provides. I left overstuffed with my eyes a bit too big for my stomach and grabbed my things before heading down to the lobby to meet Peter.
I’d spent an hour or two doing some background research on Peter and his work so that I would be better equipped for our day together. Having lined up site visits with close to 15 people, it’s hard to keep straight who does what and where their respective expertise lies. I was fascinated to learn that Peter is actually a ‘Historical Ecologist’ - a phrase I’m not even sure I’d come across before. He has three master’s degrees and a phd, with a particular emphasis on Medieval History. Though rather young, Peter has published several dozen academic papers and given talks on an impressive array of subjects. What’s particularly unique about his perspective is that he integrates the social aspects of history with the likely ecological realities of the era. This connection is often overlooked in more basic historical accounts. As I learned more about Peter, I grew increasingly eager to meet him and glean what I could from his particularly unique background.
Just as I reached the hotel lobby, he was entering the building from outside. We greeted one another and headed towards his office to pick up the car which was located conveniently next door. According to Peter, the complex in which their company recently relocated was built during the last throes of communism in the Czech Republic, and the architecture and construction quality clearly show it. The car was located in a below ground parking area that we accessed through two successive remote-operated gates. We hopped in the car and headed out towards our planned site visit, a place called Devin Woods, about 40 km to the southeast, close to the Austrian border.
It wasn’t long before we noticed the rather poor performance of the car. At first I was wondering if Peter was just having trouble driving a manual transmission, but the vast majority of vehicles are manual in Europe, so I doubted that to be the case. With each gear change, he’d approach 4000 rpm or more with little oomph behind it to propel us along. Our suspicions were confirmed when, at a traffic light on a shallow incline of a hill, the car no longer advanced. We were stuck. I got out and gave us a push up to the crest of the hill where Peter was then able to coast forward until he reached a turn-off, hoping to find a parking space. Just as he began to turn, a police car showed up. It seemed that things were about to get even a little more complicated but fortunately, for some reason, they chose to turn off their lights and move ahead.
We parked the car, grabbed our things and headed back to the office. Fortunately we had only been driving for 10 minutes so we weren’t all that far. At the office, Peter took care of the logistics of procuring another company car and figuring out what to do with the stranded one while I feasted on the impressive library on his shelves. Peter had handed me The Historical Ecology Handbook by David Egan as a primer to his field of expertise - I was happy to see Tending the Wild author Kat Anderson amongst the list of contributors - I had the pleasure to meet with her a few months ago in Davis, CA. Another interesting book I’ve yet to see was entitled Reading the Landscape of America by Mary Watts.
Ok, so back to the day as planned. In case I haven’t already mentioned this, Peter works for the Institute of Botany, a branch of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. The research academies maintained by the state, receive 60-70% of their funding from the government to carry out their research (the remainder they receive from grants). Their work is project-based, so they need to continue to develop creative fields of study in order to receive steady funding. Their academy carries out interdisciplinary research to construct as whole a picture of their identified ‘problem’ as possible. This includes paleoecology (pollen analysis), history, botany, phytosociology (a look at the shift in plant species in a given place over time).
In the realm of phytosociology as it relates to coppice woodlands for example, the primary problem they typically aim to assess is biodiversity loss as a result of a steady canopy forming. As we’ve already discussed, in a coppice woodland, the shifting mosaic of full sun, moderate canopy cover, and full closure creates a varied light regime that supports a broad diversity of plant, insect and wildlife species. This change in composition can only be carried out through long-term research done at the same point in the field. Fortunately, at some of their study sites, researchers identified quadrats (areas of study) 15m by 15m that they indentified on a map for future researchers. Scientists at the Academy were able to re-locate these quadrats and then catalogue the current species data so as to examine what the net result has been of the disappearance of coppice management in the area.
Today coppicing is virtually non-existent in the Czech Republic. As we’ve seen in many parts of Europe, it fell victim to many of the same influential changes in the years following the second World War. Most forestry in the Czech Republic to date then has been geared towards the conversion of existing coppices into high forest. In a few relatively rare instances, conversation has driven the recoppicing of some neglected stands so as to help restore some of the dwindling, high biological diversity habitat. Peter explained that high forest management was basically born and developed to a high art in that very area, (Czech Republic, Austria, Germany) and it has a very strong lobby today. The management of woodlands for quality sawlogs is the primary diver of their management goals and as such, it leaves polewood a product of little to no value.
Interestingly though, the Forestry University located in Brno recently contacted folks at the Academy because they have a genuine interest in coppicing. They would like to research why it’s good to coppice and do some in-depth research that looks at the value and volume of materials produced in coppice systems. Apparently, they already have test plots that they’ve been managing for a few years, and Peter has offered to share the research once it’s reached a polished form.
One-third of the Czech Republic is covered by trees. Most of this forested land is managed by a huge, state run forestry company. In total, they actually manage about 1/5 of the country, with most of the forested land in plantation. In much of this part of the world, up to about 150 years ago, forest management consisted of nothing but coppicing, or ‘parezeni’ as they call it in Czech. Because this all really started to change about 70 years ago, there is very little reliable oral history to help reconstruct these old management systems - it’s basically been wiped free of the cultural memory.
The lowland region we were in in the southeastern Czech Republic is basically the hottest place in the entire country. Receiving an average of 700-800 mm precipitation per year (27.5-31.5”) their average temperature is about 9 degrees C (48.2 F). They have a subcontinental climate that is relatively warm, rather dry and receives most of its rain in the summer. The landform here is relatively flat with a few topographic exceptions.
Peter is originally from Hungary which is known for being the shangri-la of black locust production around the world. ‘The Great Hungarian Plain’ describes the massive flat expanse that was treeless up until the 18th century. By the 19th/20th century, they began to perceive this as a problem established vast woodland tracts there using largely the black locust tree - (Robinia pseudoacacia) a species which they imported sometime around 1700. It has thrived there and they’ve since gone on to do considerable selection for trees that have desirable timber qualities. At this point, you really can’t get rid of it it’s so well-established.
Our meandering conversation continued on as such until we started to reach the site for our field walk. One of the only hills present in the landscape about as far as you can see, this 300 hectare forested hillside was already known to have been managed as coppice in the 14th century (and the site has been very heavily populated for 3000 years with a Bronze age settlement located at the crest of one side of the ridge). By and large, the vast majority of the coppice wood was used as a fuel. This is also wine country, with vineyards populating the mid-elevation slopes for the last 7-8 centuries. Historically, poles for the supporting vines in the vineyards represented one of the other most important products that the coppice provided for consistently.
Through research they’ve learned that the coppice rotation steadily lengthened over time. In the 14th century, people typically cut on a 7 year cycle. By the 17th century, they were cutting at 11, 12 or 13 years. And this continued to increase to 20, 25 or even 40 years, up until it was no longer managed in the 1950s. In the late 19th century, the property began to be used as a deer park as well. They brought in muflon - a rocky-hillside-adapted goat from Corsica - and along with the wild boar populations already present, the nobility used the land as a hunting ground. In addition to the collapse in the value for polewood, the property ceased to be managed as coppice in 1946 when it was declared a nature reserve and thus protected from extractive management.
We parked the car in the village below and headed up the hillside through the vineyards until we reached the wood’s edge. It was primarily a lime (linden) coppice (Tilia spp.) with scattered pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) standards. The lime poles were typically 6-8” in diameter and probably 60’ in height. The stand had a particularly open form with 4-6 meters spacings between the stools. It seemed like much of the structure as I would’ve imagined it once being had declined during the years of neglect. Nonetheless, the trees seemed healthy and looked to be producing solid growth still. According to Peter, most of the old vineyard compartments were still clearly visible with the right view, and we actually were able to make them out when we reached the ridge. The ownership of this property was similar to that of much of Europe’s woodlands in the past. Possessed by the nobility, the villagers had access to the ‘underwood’, (coppice wood) but the landowner retained the rights to all of the standard trees. Over time, he worked to steadily increase the number of standards located within the woods, and this became something of a steady point of tension with the villagers, as more standard trees ultimately reduced the volume of underwood.
At this point, there would’ve been much more woodland in the area as well, and they likely would’ve cut the entire hill side in one go, rather than break it up into smaller cants (or coppice compartments). I found this a little bit difficult to envision myself as it was a very expansive property, but I also didn’t fully comprehend the density of human settlement there at that point which would have a considerable influence on the volume of material they’d need to harvest annually. I suppose that simply felling the entire hill would be easier than trying to encourage the community to honor cant boundaries that limit annual felling to a restricted area. It’s clear that the complexities of managing land use on the community scale can be considerable.
Stopping along the way to examine some of the intricacies of the stand, I found on average between 6-8 stems per stool with each pole’s diameter at breast height between 5 and 7.8”. They appeared to be 45-50’ high, with stools spaced at an average of about 15’. Using a prism, I found the stand contained roughly 140 square feet of basal area per acre.
In another ten minutes we reached one side of the peak of the hill where we explored the ruins of the castle - did I mention there was a castle there as well? Largely crumbling, the limestone and brick walls were clearly exposed for inspection. After enjoying the view, we headed back down into the woodland and proceeded to wrap our way around the hillside to examine the remainder of the site. Further along Peter pointed out the network of woodbanks that denoted the wood’s previous edge. These ancient excavations - ditches and berms - would’ve featured a fence atop the bank at one point and were used to protect the trees within the woodland from theft and livestock.
As we circled around towards the other side of the hill, Peter shoed me other historical earthworks indicating past land use - compartmentalized rectangular basins bounded by earth berms. These are the remnants of old vineyards. As people cultivated the soil in between their vineyard rows, they inevitably turned up rocks in this rocky, limestone-based soil. With nowhere between to put them, they tossed them into piles on either size of their vineyard, not unlike the strategy that gave rise to the stone walls that today snake throughout New England. In time, trees began to grow on these stony banks - especially oaks, as they were well suited to the dry, rocky soils. People would later coppice them every 10-15 years, and they provided necessary poles for maintaining the vineyard.
We wrapped up our field walk after passing through one last impressive stand of neglected lime/oak coppice-with-standards. With healthy, productive stools that were particularly widely spaced, it was very interesting to imagine how one might augment the productivity of stand overall. The open understory expanse seemed well capable of supporting one more more productive shade tolerant vegetation layers - medicinal herbs, gooseberries/currants, elderberry, kiwi vineyard… Lots of potential here - especially in the transitional woodlands that many folks might end up with as they aim to convert high forest stands to coppice back in North America.
Upon our return to the car, Peter suggested that we drop into a nearby town for a late lunch, and I eagerly seconded his motion. As we drove away, I asked him about what I found to be the confusing vineyard layout along the hill. Stretching in narrow bands vertically up the hillside (perpendicular to the contour of the land), this is the opposite orientation I would select if given the chance (unless I was concerned with cold air drainage and frost dams forming behind a contour strip of grapes). All we could come up with as an explanation was that perhaps they chose to orient them vertically so as to make things more equal in their distribution. In other words, everyone got a slice of upland, mid-slopes and lowlands, as opposed to a narrow band along an even contour. We weren’t sure this was the reason, but it seemed the only logical explanation.
About 10 kms away, we reached the village of Breclav which is particularly close to the Austrian border. We strolled through the streets examining the architecture, visiting the castle (and the massive wine press - see photo), enjoying the views and finally settling on a charming old-style restaurant. After having only eating Czech food for a few days, I was already well aware of the meat-heavy cuisine. I ordered a stuffed pork (not sure with what) with braised cabbage and a soft, spongy white bread that apparently is unique to Czech Republic.
It was getting late by the time we left, and Peter dropped me off back at the hotel. Another day’s unique insight into the plight of the coppice worker in the modern world. Peter brings a uniquely invaluable perspective to his work and helped me gain a broader understanding of the context of the historical practicality of these systems over time. He is a great contact to have made.