A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit my friends, the Sawyer's, at their family homestead in Woodbury, VT. I first heard about Dave Sawyer six or seven years ago - his reputation preceded him as an immensely talented, kind, and knowledgable green woodworker, known especially for his mastery of the art of windsor chairmaking. (Check out some of Dave's work at http://www.windsorchairresources.com/sawyer.html). In fact, Dave helped inspire the work of my woodworking teacher Drew Langsner in North Carolina in the early 80s.
I first had the opportunity to meet Dave a few years ago, visiting his home and workshop. I was impressed with the quality of his work and the modesty with which he produces it, most definitely embodying the spirit of a traditional woodworker, living a simple life that revolves around the things that are truly important in life.
Sometime thereafter I met his daughter Annie, who completed a Permaculture Design Course this past summer at Prospect Rock Permaculture, co-taught by Keith Morris, Lisa DePiano, Alissa White and myself. Having grown up on the Sawyer's land, Annie has a deep connection to the property as well as to the skills that make it possible to live a life in relationship with what it has to offer.
Annie had previously mentioned to me that she and her brother had been planning to initiate coppicing of an existing stand of red maple, and her final design project for the course included this as an integral part of the site's productive capacity. I was intrigued and agreed to come by for another visit the next time I was in the area. Months passed, and I recently had a good excuse to take a slight detour and examine the stand more closely.
I arrived to find a 3-4 acre plot. largely dominated by red maple, with significant potential. Annie and her brother George escorted me throughout the stand, describing the site's history and their vision and needs. Red maple (Acer rubrum) is an exceedingly common eastern tree species that often naturally exhibits a multi-stemmed. It undeniably lends itself to coppice management. Unfortunately, the species proves to be less-than-exceptional for most applications. With a density of 34.4 lbs/cubic foot (as compared to 52.5 for black locust - the densest species growing in the northeastern forest) and 18.7 million BTUs per cord (as compared to 27.7 for hickory), it's a relatively lightweight species with a moderate value as fuelwood. The wood proves to be poor in decay resistance, offering little long-term potential for outdoor uses. But... it grows and gives of itself freely. And as I like to say, 'When God gives you red maple... you make (insert useful function here)!'
What I'm getting at is that while not exceptional at any particular function, red maple proves to be well suited to the site, and as such, it makes a lot of sense to use it - especially when their needs are fairly straightforward - building poles (for roundwood structures, yurts, tipis, etc; and fuelwood).
This particular stand appeared to be just about optimal for conversion to coppice management. Largely east-southeast facing, the existing trees were closely spaced, with individual stems often between 6-10' from one another, and relatively young (Annie and George, in their mid-late 20s, explained that the stand was an open field during their youth, having been left to the process of succession sometime in the last 10-15 years), they should respond well to cutting and prove to be productive, with only a moderate need to fill in gaps between individuals to help increase productivity, and encourage straight, upright growth while outcompeting herbaceous vegetation in the understory.
The landscape also provided some very useful topographical patterns that clearly suggested boundaries between individual cants (contiguous areas of coppice). Based on their needs and the existing growth on the site (about 4" dbh after roughly 12 years growth), we decided that a 10 year harvest rotation seemed to make the most sense to provide them with the materials they desired. Thus, we were able to break up the stand into 5 separate cants, approximately 0.4-0.5 acres in size that they could clearcut every other year to provide a polewood and fuelwood yield. The stand also featured a number of more mature existing trees having persisted for a few decades prior to the succession of the field. These included a number of sugar maples, black cherry as well as red maple. We discussed leaving these as standards - depending on their location (relationship to the to-be-coppiced red maple) probably 4-8 per cant - that could be grown on for lumber and/or maple sugaring.
To optimize the productivity of the coppice regrowth, we talked about starting by cutting the cant along the southernmost edge of the stand and progressively working north (upslope - see attached photo with cant boundaries - note that the stand marked 'cant 4' lies at the high point of this portion of the property) so as to maximize each stand's access to incoming solar radiation and minimize shading from more mature stands.
In terms of access, they had already created a rough primary road running roughly east-west up the slope which provides truck access to much of the stand - and an existing 'terrace' that appeared to be the remnants of an old farm/logging road running (north-south) through the southern portion of the property could be reopened and expanded to provide a stable extraction route for harvested polewood.
In parts of the cants where growth was a bit more sparse, we discussed either layering in coppice shoots after they've begun to grow, 'stooling-up' individual stools to produce rooted clones for transplanting, or introducing new species to the stand to further diversify the mix and further support their needs. (They were particularly interested in black locust [Robinia pseudoacacia] for fencing and building materials and fuel).
Probably one of the biggest challenges to coppice establishment will prove to be deer browse, as they've already seen clear evidence of their presence on the site. We discussed the options, and while fencing seems to be the only 'sure' form of protection, they may likely elect to take a wait-and-see approach before making the investment. This will definitely prove to be a challenge for most folks implementing coppice management on their homesteads, and it's something we'll discuss in detail in our book.
In addition to the quality and accessibility of the existing stand, probably the most promising aspect of the Sawyer's property is their eagerness to engage with coppice and the immediate needs it will serve for them. It will most definitely prove to take time and energy to transform the stand to its true potential, but it's clear that Annie and George are up for the task.
To help them along in the process and also provide an opportunity for others to explore the design, establishment, harvest and management of a developing coppice stand, we've agreed to host an open work party/workshop over a to-be-determined weekend in February during the course of which we'll harvest 'cant 1', limb the harvested polewood, discuss value-adding potential and green woodworking skills, and explore the practical aspects of coppice stand design. Once we've selected a date and have more details, we'll post an update - it will definitely prove to be a strong, practical, hands-on opportunity to engage with coppice.
In the meantime, Dave and I would love to hear about projects any of you may have in the works - we're continuing to pour our lives into the manuscript and species database, and the broader the breadth of practical experience we have to draw on, the better. Thanks so much to you all and happy solstice!