Coppice in the Limosin with Mark part 2 -
Soon we were back in the car, headed south. Rain seemed imminent on the horizon for much of the day and we hoped it would keep at bay as we anticipated spending at least part of our afternoon outside. The steep hills and wooded countryside of Michael's region gave way to a more flattened series of rolling hills south of the city of Limoges - the largest city in the Limosin region. With signs of suburban sprawl showing along the outskirts of town, we still saw much of the traditional infrastructure and vernacular building traditions displayed with exposed exterior timber frames on several of the structures. Alas, I was unable to snap any photos along the way as we were already late for our meeting.
We arrived at the Chevrier’s around 3:15 and entered through the wooden gate unsure of what we might find within. There was little indicator of their craft work evident from the exterior. We knocked at their front door and were soon enough greeted by Serge - the man of the house. He gathered his wife Chantal, met us around the back of the house and proceeded to dazzle us with the depth of their knowledge and dedication to the preservation and perpetuation of these French traditions. (Check out their work on their website - http://accordboischataignier.fr.st/ Hopefully you read French. The photos tell a lot too though.)
We had much to cover and not nearly enough time to do it. Unfortunately I never did get a thorough recount of how it was that they came to this lifestyle. We did learn that Chantal - Serge’s wife and a passionate and skilled craftswoman - had grown up in Paris and the two of them had chosen to relocate to the Limosin about 25 years ago.
Again reflecting some of the traditions of land ownership, we learned that the Chevrier’s did not own woodland, they bought the rights to harvest the wood on a fixed area each year in the surrounding countryside. There’s no shortage of chestnut coppice in the area, and this arrangement has worked for them to date. For 3-4 year old chestnut coppice it costs about 600 Euros per hectare per year(about $750) and about 1000 Euros ($1360) for more mature stands. Each year they cut one hectare of land to provide the raw materials for all of their production needs. They are typically cutting at the age of 3-4 years, 8 and 12 or so. Of course different sizes of polewood are useful for different things. Fencing is one product that they seem to specialize in, making several different styles, from wattle-type chestnut panels to gates and other picket-style sections fastened with nails.
They also make lovely baskets woven with thin strips of chestnut that they produce using a very clever traditional machine - something of a mechanical drawknife. For this, they only use the bottom meter of a pole about 3-4” in diameter. They flatten two faces of the pole and then place it in the jaws of the machine. They only use the bottom 3’ because it is the only section that is knot free - they explained though that they had recently visited a craftsman in western Spain who produces a similar product. There they intensively prune their chestnut stump sprouts so as to eliminate all side branching. While labor intensive, this allows them to use the entire pole which is subsequently knot free.
Once the blank is roughed out, the Chevrier’s steam the wood to help dry it out. This helps eliminate shrinkage which would in time cause the woven basket to shrink and form gaps. After all of this prep work, they fire up the machine, and a set of hydraulically operated piston arms repeatedly remove thin slices from the blank, thereby creating thin strips of wood that are invaluable for woven crafts. Because of the fact that the wood is sliced, one side is a bit rough, having not followed the natural orientation of the wood’s fibers. They take this into account when weaving, and orient all of the strips in the same direction. They showed us some small baskets they make with these strips - probably 8” by 4” and 2” deep. Serge and Chantal’s daughter Sandrine who had since joined us told me they charge 6-8 Euros each, though that really doesn’t cover their costs - 10 would make it a lot more economical.
Chantal told us they also produce hoops for the wine barrel industry. It wasn’t clear if this product is still in demand or if they’ve moved towards something easier to mechanize (I assume they have). Traditionally, both barrel staves (individually sections used to fabricate wine barrels) and wooden hoops were in high demand in the wine producing regions of France. They would produce these in the woodlands, load them into flat, low boats which they floated off towards wine producing regions downstream where even the boat was dismantled and broken down into usable parts for fuel or other crafts. Apparently, the chestnut was more desirable than metal for the hoop material as it didn’t get broken down by salt on sea voyages. Also the chestnut is resistant to decay so it isn’t decomposed by insects and fungi nearly as quickly. Apparently, different types of wines would feature different numbers of barrel hoops to indicate which variety was contained inside. In some cases, they fabricated barrels as large as 5-10,000 liters (1250-4000 gallons)! to transport wine from France to parts of northern Africa (not all that far away). Much of the region had been colonized by the French, but there were no vineyards, so the wine had to come from somewhere.
Another testament to the vital role the wine industry played in driving the economics of woodland management - poles for training grapes in vineyards were a consistent need. To help prevent the spread of fungal disease that was often found on the bark of chestnut, it was actually a law that all bark be removed from the poles to help prevent infection in vineyards.
Chantal demonstrated the process of making a barrel hoop. Under the cover of a traditional shelter that woodland workers built, she started with a 8-10’ long, 1.25-1.5” diameter sapling which she proceeded to split in half using a specialized holding device to help her evenly guide the split along the length of the piece. With experience you can create an even, balanced split by varying the pressure applied to the piece - if the split begins to run towards one side, simply apply more force to the thicker half so as to draw it back towards the center. All this was done by bracing the base of the split between a horizontal wooden peg mounted on a tripod. She would hold the sapling tightly just below the split and then press either up or down on the piece to encourage it to continue to run straight. It’s very important that the two halves of the sapling turn out even because even small variations in thickness will make the blank either more or less resistant to bending into a hoop, causing an irregularity in the final shape.
Withe 2 even halves, she then clamped the piece in a set of jaws in the very same holding device and strapped on a belt-type device with a small wooden ‘platform’ protruding from one hip that allowed her to support the sapling’s other end. She used a drawknife to to remove the pith from the inner face of the sapling to help reduce the effects of shrinkage and movement, and eliminate this weak first year’s growth.
The next step in the process was to place the blank in the jaws of a hand-cranked device that acts to gently crimp the wood, causing it to bend. The tighter the bend, the more frequently you must pass it through the device. Finally the hoop ends are bound together using a thin piece of willow.
Another product they shared with us was the construction of chestnut paling fences - well, they didn’t show us the whole process but they did show us how to rive a section of chestnut using a froe into about 8 blanks that could then be bound together using braided wire to form a temporary fence that could be coiled up for storage and later unrolled for use when needed. This is basically just like the type of temporary fencing we see today erected around fairgrounds and sporting events. Here, Serge showed us their take on a riving brake - a stationary tool used to hold a piece of wood being split. Most of the riving brakes I’d see were mounted vertically - 2 uprights with two attached horizontal pieces. One of them is fastened to the uprights horizontally, while the upper one is fastened at a slight angle - say 10-15%. This provides a gap between them of varying size that allows the craftsperson to place a piece of wood between them and use the jaws to hold it while they attempt to control the split. Well, their riving brake was heavy duty and movable so that the splitting action was more vertical than horizontal in orientation.
In the midst of these wonderful demonstrations we discussed some of the traditions of coppice management in France. Typically the work was done by farmers during the winter months. They painted an image of a hard, often destitute life, with the farmers essentially living as indentured servants on the chateau estate owned by the wealthy nobility of the land. They worked tirelessly, up to 16 hours a day in summer and basically saw very little for their efforts. Chantal described the life as ‘utterly miserable’. With no hope of owning land, they were forced to erect minimalist pole structures which they covered with a 2’ thick layer of wood shavings to help insulate them and protect them from the rain. In these temporary structures, they lived and worked through the cold, wet winter months. A challenging life that sounded very difficult to romanticize. This struck me as quite a contrast from the traditions I’d become familiar with in the UK. My understanding in England is that coppice workers bid on bits of woodland each year based on the quality of the material it contained and their relative ability to work it up into product. They then moved onto the property, erected temporary structures in which they’d reside and proceeded to cut the trees and convert them into product. Not all that much different in the physical manifestation, but it sounds to me as if the economic structure was absolutely different, with French coppice workers possessing little if any rights whatsoever.
We all headed inside to take a look at the work area where they make baskets, toys, birdhouses and more. Chantal brought out several books illustrating their work and some of the traditions of the French countryside. She shared photos of some of the other craft traditions she’d researched and found inspiring and it was absolutely clear that this was far more than a source of income for them - it was a tradition and a lifestyle that they were passionately a part of. In turn, I shared some photos of some of my work to compare and contrast it with theirs.
We enjoyed a cup of tea together, sweetened with honey they’d collected from bees feeding on chestnut flowers. It was delicious. In the meantime, Sandrine’s husband, Ian arrived - who coincidentally was from the UK. What a very small world.
As the time was ticking away and our daylight fading we set off to look at some of the stands of chestnut that they are managing so we could see their system and the quality of the materials. It was about a ten minute drive to the first site and we passed along a woods road for about 8 minutes on foot through chestnut cants at varying stages of regrowth until we arrived at the first plot - about .5 ha in size (1.3 acres). They had cut through most of this three year old growth already though it was merely a drop in the bucket full of a sea of healthy, vigorous coppiced chestnut stretching far out onto the horizon.
This was the best quality coppice I’ve ever seen. The three year old shoots were 15’ plus in height showing a good 8’ of growth in the first season. The stools were remarkably healthy. In fact it was actually difficult to see where the stools actually lay they had been cut so close to the ground. Chantal explained that they actually go so far as to use a leaf blower to clear the detritus from around the base of the stool so that they can make very low cuts. This encourages straight stems with no curved ‘pistol-grip’ form at the bottom which renders the lowest 6-12” or more useless for most crafts. It looked like the stump sprouts were emerging clear from the soil surface. It was difficult to make out the size of these stools and we didn’t find out what their projected age was, but they must’ve been at least 100 years, if not closer to 300 based on their girth. They seemed to be spaced anywhere from 6-8’ from one another though it seemed that they could definitely have sustained a regular 6’ spacing for this size growth. This was a simple coppice system - few if andy standards were visible on the horizon. They’ve been cutting this stand for 6-7 years now and the attention they’ve put into encouraging healthy growth was clearly evident.
Their primary problem here has been deer damage. With no permanent residents living within the coppice and too extensive a stand to actually fence them out, they simply have to accept the fact that they’ll sustain some damages each season as a cost of doing business. I asked if they ever do any other work to attempt to improve the stand and they said no - because they rent they have little incentive to do anything like layering or planting out to improve stand density. These high quality cants are producing just fine as it is and so they’re happy with the relationship.
We left this site after only about 15-20 minutes so that we could beat the impending dusk and visit another cant nearby. Along the way we wound through vast expanses of chestnut coppice - and made a stop to observe a pile of 6-8 year old poles 20’ long each - the entire stack probably 15’ high and 40’ long. This is how they store the cleaned up and processed polewood - it’s later collected on a flatbed truck with a grab arm and hauled to their site for conversion into value added products. One thing I’ve forgotten to mention is that Sandrine explained that they always sned their poles (remove the side branches) working from the tip to the bottom. This helps prevent them from damaging the surface of the bark as they clean them up and also helps ensure that they remove the entire branch as the downward direction causes the brach stub to pop free from the pole since it’s working in the opposite direction from that of the growth. This is important for many products as they need to remove the side branches completely so the stubs don’t interfere with their ultimately functionality.
The second stand we visited was about the same size and age, though it was adjacent to a more mature stand about 4-5” in diameter. It was definitely less than optimally stocked with fairly large gaps in between stools, but this didn’t seem to result in overly open-growth, branchy growth forms. Instead there I saw probably the most healthy chestnut stool I’ve ever seen - close to 4’ in diameter, by my count it hosted 40 quality stems (Chantal and Serge said it would be more likely to be 30 for their needs). It was clear that the species thrived here and so wonderfully inspiring to see how it continues to bear even amidst the erosion of the craft traditions that once sustained the industry. Chantal told us there were once 2500 coppice workers in this area alone - today there are only 15. Much of the existing coppice in the area is still being managed by wood merchants who buy access to the stands at a reduced rate, but they care little for the health of the stand or the quality of the stems. Most of their management and extraction is mechanical and causes significant destruction to the coppice, the ruts from their machinery tires and the careless cutting eroding the stability and health of the coppice for the long term.
It was just about dark by this point and while we easily could’ve continued talking for hours, it was time for us to go. We graciously thanked Serge and Chantal and headed back towards home feeling absolutely saturated from a most enlightening day.