Two kinds of woodlands seen along the Dartmoor Way: A conifer plantation, planted mid-last century, looking rather majestic but also, well, rather — although hardly all — sterile. Houndtor Woods, a Woodlands Trust area near Manaton.Trees of many trunks in a hardwood forest, looking deeply lush with its attendant mosses and other understory plants. A frequent scene along the Dartmoor Way. Having passed through many a coppiced wood on my recent trip, I’ve been thinking about the practice. Coppicing is a way of harvesting wood by cutting the tree near the ground and then allowing multiple shoots to grow up from the stump into stems. (Pollarding is a similar practice, but here the cuts are at the top, which thickens the tree on its sole bole.) You may have noticed unintentional examples — the natural inclination to sprout — on the streets right here in Brooklyn. Here’s the stump of a mature Plane Tree on the Street of Perpetual Renovation. Although cut down, it is still rooted –grinding out the root is a serious task — “not dead yet,” and has sprouted into a three-foot tall bush-like affair. After a number of years, depending on the species, these multiple shoots off the stump, or stool, can be harvested. The process will then start again. Instead of clear-cutting, a profoundly short-sighted strategy, coppicing allows for decades, even centuries of harvesting. Since the base tree never grows up, as it were, but is fully rooted, it may indeed be many hundreds of years old, significantly older than the average single-boled of the same species. Cut trees seem to live longer, as a matter of fact. Coppicing was done to supply wood for charcoal burners, heating, construction (including wattles), and such specialized needs as hop-poles (the blessed hops that give us bitter beer grow very tall indeed) and spars for thatching. The bark of oaks could be used for tanning, a craft turned industry that, for instance, devoured the Hudson Highlands of oaks and hemlocks, to bring things back to this side of the Atlantic again. Coppicing is hardly practiced anymore, except to maintain conservation areas — coppicing opens up woodlands to plant and animal communities that wouldn’t be interested in a monotonous climax forest, increasing biodiversity — and by those few who still practice ancient arts like thatching.Some tree species coppice better than others. Willow, hazel, beech, ash, hawthorn, alder, and oak are some of them. There is a thought that these trees evolved such basal sproutings to survive being browsed by mega-fauna herbivores. (Elm, for instance, is evidently delicious, if you’re into that sort of thing.)
I can imagine someone felling a tree, a long time ago, and then giving up on removing the stump — check out a stump grinder some day, or imagine the (literal) horse power necessary to do so — and discovering that it was soon sending thin stems into the air. Hey! Awesome!