Here's Mark's next installment ...
I awoke on Friday morning in a comfortable, unfamiliar bed. My British, turned-French host Brandon called up to me to let me know coffee was ready. He sure knew how to get me up.
I headed downstairs and found him at the kitchen table. We sat and talked for an hour or so, Brandon filling me in about his experiences connecting with the locals in the village as we saw several of them pass by, enjoying a quite morning in the hills. He told me about one elderly man who would head out to the fields each day to cut grass with his scythe to bring back to his animals. As we were chatting another man who must’ve been in his 80s headed out towards one of his fields with 2 chestnut fenceposts in hand to place somewhere around the perimeter of his field.
This reminds me of an important property-ownership point I’ve yet to make. Early on in my conversation with Michael, I learned that property ownership in France grew exceedingly complex as a result of a decree by none other than Napoleon back in the day. This legislation required that property be split evenly amongst each descendant so that what was once a relatively large inheritance and contiguous property has now become a network of disconnected fragments with little relation to the whole of which they were once a part. Thus the 10 or more (I can’t recall how much specifically) hectares (2.6 acres to a hectare) that Michael owns are spread out over a vast, disconnected land base that features a range of shapes and sizes. The whole thing is so complicated that in many cases, people aren’t even aware of parcels they might own and so they lie as derelict fragments within a severed whole...
As we finished our wholesome porridge breakfast, Michael and Tom arrived for our first outing of the day. The previous night Brandon told us about ‘le gran chene’ - the big oak. It’s a massive ancient oak tree that was only a 10 minute or so drive from Bossabut. Being the tree lovers we are, we set off to check it out. On the way, I had a chance to see some of the architecture of Brandon’s village that was hard to make out the night before. The barn on his property features some amazing old timber frame joinery with some impressive rough hewn beams, and we passed another building in the village with stunning vaulted stone basements (exposed on the downhill side).
A few miles away, we pulled off the road and took to a well traveled footpath through the countryside. Within about ten minutes, we came onto what appeared to be some traditional form of water distribution canal, complete with sluice gate. It was difficult to tell exactly what it did but my mind quickly took off imaging a keyline-type food flow irrigation that ensued as the sluice gate closed and the water backed up in the shallow, near contour tench behind. It was undoubtedly some type of human created earthwork used for moving water passively through the landscape - a relic of a land use tradition now nearly forgotten.
We crossed a lovely wooded stream and just around the bend came upon a most stunning site - an oak tree that boasted a canopy that easily spread 70’ in width. The landscaping around this massive tree bore the reverence of peoples over several generations, with a deteriorating wooden fenceline around the perimeter and a grassy understory devoid of woody vegetation. We spent a good fifteen minutes admiring this marvel of nature and relishing the experience to convene with such an ancient creature. To date, this journey has already proven to be a stunningly deep invitation to recognize the intimate depths of humans’ relationship with trees and landscape. Le gran chene was yet another moving installation in this passage.
Brandon needed to return home for work, so we paid our respects and returned to the village. From there, Michael drove us back to their home, from which the two of us proceeded to explore his property so that he might show me the work he’s been doing to restore health to a recently forgotten landscape. First he showed me maps of the parcels he owns and how painfully disconnected so many of them are.
Much of Michael’s landholdings feature remnants of chestnut coppice woodland. That’s the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). Like the UK, the Romans brought it with them as they expanded and colonized much of Europe 2000 years ago - yet another testament to the incredible utility of this amazing species. At this point, much of the woodland is suffering from a severe lack of management over the past generation and beyond. The woods are choked with growth and the chestnut stools that have survived have far too many stems to support given the interval since they were last cut.
Michael’s management goals focus on restoring health to this forgotten woodland. He’s not personally interested in producing small diameter polewood for crafts nor has he cultivated a market for these types of items. Instead, he’s looking to continue to build on his fuelwood sales while increasing the potential to extract quality timber which he can mill up on the bandsaw mill he’s setting up outside his barn. While this isn’t necessarily within the purview of coppice establishment as we’re seeking to explore in our book, it certainly bears relevance as it’s another take on woodland management - effectively stand-scale pruning for community health. And given the fact that Michael has inherited this ‘overstood’ (neglected) coppice at the outset, it’s immensely illuminating to examine how one goes about shifting the structure of this polewood-based tradition towards something that looks more like a ‘high forest’ in form.
We looked at some old pollards that were long since cut, chestnut stools that still bore a physical resemblance to what they must’ve looked like decades ago and the legacy of snowloads and windthrow on trees spread too broad for the root systems that support them. Michael steadily works to actively thin the woods so as to favor the trees with the most potential and the best form with the hopes that they’ll develop into high quality saw logs over time and encourage a more balanced stand structure. Many of the chestnut stools in these stands are massive and require much more careful attempts at restoration than simply cutting them to the ground. As we saw with the management strategies at Burnham Beeches, the restoration of derelict coppice is in many ways a new and emerging discipline that requires practitioners to learn as they go and actively experiment. After having lost a large chestnut stool as a result of attempt re-coppicing gone wrong, Michael has become a bit apprehensive about his strategy.
It was difficult to tell why it was that that large chestnut stool didn’t resprout from his coppice attempt. In my mind, limited light seemed as if it may have played a big factor as it appeared to be well wooded to the south. Michael didn’t agree though. He was left feeling a bit uncertain as to how best to approach the restoration of these over-mature stools. Another possibility leading to the demise of this stool could be it’s relative maturity when cut. Many trees lose their ability to resprout with age. Perhaps as is done with pollard restoration work, it would in this case be best to approach the cutting incrementally - leaving an existing stem in place so the tree may continue to photosynthesize - in pollard restoration, they call this a ‘sap riser’.
We made our way back down to the house for lunch and tea (Michael is British of course!) and an hour or so later set out to look at some of the stands he was particularly satisfied with after having been working to restore their health for several years now.
Here we saw a much more appropriately spaced structure with many of the overstood stools now featuring only one or two stems. Again, the plan is to approach these cuts slowly and steadily - sort of a ‘measure twice, cut once’ approach - applied over the course of decades.
After clearing the woods of the thick scrubby growth that had been choking out its potential productivity, Michael will return in another couple of years to thin once again - at this point, it should become even more clear as to which stems should best be removed and converted into fuelwood and which ones have the most promise as sawlogs in another decade or two.
He told me about the challenges in thinning around coppice stools and standard trees that have been previously supported and protected by the trees that surrounded them. One must be careful when approaching a thinning to make sure they don’t remove too much of this shelterwood lest the stools and standards suffer the effects of high winds and topple over. A little further along, we saw the effects of this with considerable swaths of woodlands downed as the result of windthrow.
While conversion of coppice stands via thinning towards more of a high forest structure wasn’t necessarily something I’d originally sought to observe, it was fascinating to see how the legacy of neglect translated into a variant of this type of silvicultural management. I learned a lot from Michael and the set of eyes he brings to the woods - and as it should, it all comes back to his goals and what he perceives to be the needs of the land. Without access to a market for polewood and an interest in developing the livelihoods associated with value added crafts in this way, this management approach was absolutely appropriate for the context.
That evening I spent the night in a hotel in a nearby town, catching up on communications from the past few days on the road.