William Logan Bryant has written a charming and scientific book about the unlikely nonfiction topic of tree pruning. This acclaimed arborist explores woodland cutting from ancient times to the present. He centers his message on two pruning methods that have been used for thousands of years to harvest wood without killing the tree.
The first cutting technique is coppicing, which occurs at ground-level and the second is pollarding, which is done at trunk height of about 10 feet. Both techniques produce multiple sprouts that are allowed to grow until they reach the desired size to meet particular purposes.
Beginning in the Mesolithic Age, humans have depended on harvesting wood using both pollarding and coppicing for energy, warmth and structure. Farmers coppiced hedges to feed their sheep tree-branch hay. Rural people knew how to prune hazel nut trees to produce a large quantity of food and strong vertical branches for building bridges, walls and baskets.
Curved branches made barrel hoops; small branches of beech were made into charcoal to fire ironworks and oak timbers were shaped for ships’ hulls. The author states that humans had a “very active relationship to trees” until two centuries ago when the philosophy of mastering nature took root. Currently, a forest the size of France is cut down each year; people today act as if trees are in endless supply.
Bryant is offered a position pollarding 92 plane trees in front of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Working on this site spurs him on to travel to Norway, Japan, Sierra Leone, England, Spain and the redwood forests of California to satisfy his “obsession with sprouting and with the antiquity and scope of people’s lives with trees.”
The author’s curiosity about the two traditional ways of cutting trees is reflected on every page of his insightful study. He deftly examines pollarding and coppicing through the lenses of botany, history, anthropology, archaeology, ecology and meditation.
Logan observes that though “a tree is in a forest…there also is a forest in a tree” in that “every new branch arises on its parent stem in exactly the same way that its first parent arose from the tree.” Bryant offers practical knowledge about how to live with trees to mutual benefit.
“Sprout Lands” reassures us that, even in the face of wildfires and clear-cut forests, nature can set itself aright. The author’s vision is cause for wonder and hope.