Saturday, February 2, 2013

Whole Lotta Coppicing Goin' On

          In the world I inhabit in my head, which is unfortunately nothing like the one I actually live in, the people who read this blog (that's you, Dear Readers) are clamoring, in their veritable tens, for more posts on pruning.

          And even though in the actual world, "pruning" is not a word that is going to launch a hundred-thousand Google searches, in my world I am going to pretend it's important enough to write yet another post on Pruning Techniques That Are Also Fun Words To Say And, In Addition, Typeset Like A Million Bucks.

           The word of the day, Dear Readers, is "coppicing." Coppicing is similar to pollarding, except that coppiced trees are cut to the stumps on a regular cycle (as few as 3-4 years for birch; as many as 50 years for oak in the U.K., where it is still practiced). The idea is to provide a constant, manageable, renewable supply of wood, traditionally for firewood and charcoal. This site gives you more information on the practice, in the highly unlikely event that you are as fascinated by forestry practices as I am.

          The practice of coppicing also gives us this lovely word which is far more widely known:

          Meaning, of course, a place where coppicing is practiced—a small wooded area.*

          I asked myself this morning why the idea of a coppiced wood is such a compelling one to me, and I decided that it was because the practice of coppicing demonstrates that we are capable of reasoned management of a resource, instead of wanton exploitation, and indeed that we were capable of reasoned management of a resource as far back as the Middle Ages.

          There seems to be a popular modern idea that humans are incapable of sensible resource management, that we squander every resource we have or have ever had—that we have never been, are not now, and will never be, able to understand the consequences of our resource use. I grant you, some bleak mornings this doesn't seem so far off the mark. 
          However, it also turns out to be a most useful cop-out. For if we've never been able to manage resources sensibly, and we can't manage them sensibly now, then why bother even trying? That makes it easy, doesn't it? We're just ignorant, resource-wasting idiots; we always have been and always will be, so why even worry about sensible management? We simply can't do it, so we don't even have to try. Easy schmeasy.

          Except that we aren't necessarily ignorant, resource-wasting idiots, and we can manage resources sensibly. It's just harder than saying we're bums and throwing up our hands in defeat. But something like coppicing testifies against the easy out. Coppiced forests were managed for centuries to provide a steady, reliable source of firewood or wood for charcoal, and indeed, for centuries that's just what they've done.

          Coppicing is one of those things that forces us to face the fact that we're capable of sensible, useful solutions to the problems that go along with resource use. We always have been. We always will be. We need to pull up our socks and start making an effort.

*And not as I originally thought, upon making the acquaintance of the word for the first time at a young age and not reading it very carefully, a dead body. Imagine my shock and horror when the hero of the tale I was reading went tramping through the copse—which I misread as "corpse." Put me right off fairy tales for a while, I can tell you.

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