Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees
Review by Michelle Sutton, NYSUFC Editor
“Coppice and pollard … we should know these words again, for by means of them, people built their world out of wood for ten thousand years.” —William Bryant Logan
Every spring, I coppice my trio of purple smokebushes (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’) because I value the deep purple foliage more than the ethereal flowers. I coppiced lots of different kinds of shrubs for clients over the years, always with ornamental aims in mind. However, I’ve never pollarded a tree and it had struck me as a strange horticultural folly or quirk, but that was my own ignorance showing—ignorance of the fact that pollarding and coppicing have been used since the last ice age to generate woody sprouts for a stunning array of human uses.
Arborist and NYBG faculty member William Bryant Logan wrote a book, Sprout Lands (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), that explores how foundational to human prosperity these practices have been. Yes, it’s a whole book about coppicing and pollarding, and it’s riveting. That’s what you’d expect from the author of three acclaimed books: Air: The Restless Shaper of the World, Oak: The Frame of Civilization, and Dirt: the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, the latter of which was made into a documentary.
Logan traveled to California, England, Spain, and Japan to learn about coppicing and pollarding for the benefit of his Brooklyn-based company, Urban Arborists, Inc. Among their NYC charges are 40 young, nursery-pollarded London planes (Platanus x acerifolia) planted outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in four groves, called bosques. His search for techniques fueled the writing of this fascinating history of these practices by ancient (and more recent) civilizations.
Not only are sprouts ‘important’ in pruning, I found, they are the reason there are any trees or shrubs at all, and they are the reason that there are any people at all. For all but the last two centuries of human history, the whole point of pruning was to produce sprouts … for when these sprouts grew up they gave people firewood, charcoal, building wood, ship timber, fence posts, slender willow whips (called withies) to tie knots with, hedges, fodder, fiber, rope, and baskets … without them, human beings would not have made it past the Neolithic.
You may wonder what function the London planes on the Metropolitan’s grounds are serving the City, since their pollard-produced shoots are not being used for more than what Logan calls “a playful wattle fence.”
Our four little groves of London planes are not only strange and beautiful … By staying small on the paved plaza, the planes do not grow big heavy branches, which they might drop in a storm on an unfortunate passerby. With the annual pruning, their roots too remain small. They do not buckle the pavement, lift the sidewalk, or create lips of concrete upon which a person might trip. They cast a shade that is cooling but not too deep and wide. Other plants can grow among and beside them …
Part of Logan’s enchantment with coppicing and pollarding is knowing that these techniques could once again be used on a massive scale by humans in an age of otherwise shrinking resources. Where pollarding has been useful in preventing livestock feeding on the new shoots, pollarding could now be employed to generate shoots above the deer chewing line. In exploring how that could reconnect humans deeply to trees, and in his writing generally, Logan displays a lyricism and expository power that I greatly admire.
Pollarding v. Topping
“Pollarding is a touchy subject for some tree people, because many of us have been taught for years that topping is bad—so instinctively, pollarding feels wrong. Furthermore, here in the Midwest, tree topping is sometimes called ‘pollarding’ by its practitioners to give their type of destructive pruning legitimacy. But pollarding has a long, proud history in Europe and is not the same as topping. A good discussion of the differences between the two can be found here.” –Columbia, Missouri Natural Resources Supervisor Brett O’Brien