Humans Through Time, With the Help of Trees
Written by: Certified Arborist, Rachel Louise Spek
Often, when we look back into our history, we can better understand the present world around us. Trees and humans have a long-shared history, with many tree pruning practices that were done for specific benefits to people. Many of those practices no longer continue due to the lessened need for the products created by those efforts. As our needs, uses, and understanding of trees evolve while society grows, our ways of managing trees have evolved as well.
William Bryant Logan’s book, Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees, presents us with a very modern problem. As an arborist and university instructor, Logan is in the research stage of a project at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. The project design re-introduces a very specific style of tree pruning called pollarding. This pollarding is meant to evoke the strange beauty of utilitarian tree use. The challenge, however, is that almost no one uses this old pruning style anymore. Logan looked to history, going on a worldwide journey for solutions. Through this book, we learn how historical pruning styles like pollarding and coppicing were used and why, what caused them to become seemingly obsolete, and ways humanity could benefit from their re-emergence.
I particularly enjoyed how Logan pinpoints the disconnect between our natural pruning styles of today and the practical uses of pollarding and coppicing of the past. He explains that most modern arborists are taught to prune a tree so that it adapts its remaining branches, replacing what had been lost. Therefore, we take a branch back to an appropriate branchlet capable of taking over the lead ensuring our trees grow as strong as possible.
The trees in our yards have specific maintenance needs, therefore we rarely approve of sprouts because they are weakly attached to the branch and detract from the look of the tree. However, as Logan points out, sprouts can have a place. These sprouts can produce firewood, charcoal, ship timber, fence posts, hedges, fodder, fiber, rope, and baskets all made possible because of the human interaction with these trees.
Sprout Lands teaches us how to see trees in a different way. It explains that self-pollarding and natural coppicing exist if you search for it. You can watch for it in the re-sprouting of maple trees from their fallen parent, or in the fairy rings of hundred-year-old redwood trees that sprouted from even more ancient ones (Logan, 231). I encourage you to pick this book up and read how it reveals a glimpse into the mind of an arborist and tells the romantically practical relationship we have to trees and our craft.