Friday, January 25, 2013

wild wood

It's pruning month, and I'm about two-thirds done with the time-consuming work of shaping trees for size, optimal fruit production, and strength of the bearing branches. Learning to prune has been a hard, slow process. Getting it right is immensely rewarding, the successes visible as healthy, nicely-shaped trees. But the mistakes, conversely, live on to the critical eye and trees don't seem to outgrow early mistakes.

Pruning is an exercise in watching and anticipating tree growth patterns. The lesson for me, relearned every year, is that even domesticated trees are wild, each exhibiting a unique growth pattern. Pruning elicits responses that follow general patterns but are never exactly predictable, differing species by species and tree by tree.

These thoughts are triggered in part by recent reading. Sam and Corrinne, blogged about here, sent us a gift book a while back, titled Wildwood, by the late Roger Deakin, English writer, activist and naturalist. It sat on the bedside table for a while, as I worked through a few thousand pages of Dickens, but when I picked it up I was captivated. Deakin takes the reader into the world of old English forest management, where complex codes dictated rights to various parts of the tree and forest management practices had not changed significantly for millenia. That world is gone, along with its rich associated lexicon, much of it associated with the implementation of the Magna de Foresta (Charter of the Forest, 1217), which followed the Magna Carta by two years and defined the forest rights of commoners. Bavin, bill-hooks, boll, broche, coppice, cant, chark, dotard, faggot, fascine, flawing, fogg, frith, frow, futtock, gad, hafts, hurdles, husset, imp, kibble, mongwood, pannage, peel, pollard, reeve, rifletum, rood, rundle, scow, scrog, setts, sherewood, slivery, smokesilver, spars, spar-gads, speck, spinney, talwood, thistletake, trennal, trug, tynsell, vert, wattle, woodmote - all terms associated with the sustainable management of the forest, interwoven with a complex legal system defining use and extraction rights, defining a fierce economy in which nothing, down to the smallest twig, was wasted. With the coming of coal, forests waned in importance; language loss mirrored and fed a loss of knowledge. Deakin walks the reader through a rediscovery.

From Deakin I jumped to Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders, a novel referenced repeatedly by Deakin. The Woodlanders, published in 1886, layers a human story (involving, as almost always in Hardy, a tragic female figure) on a forest environment and economy. The woodland dwarfs the woodlanders; the people, set against the patterns of the forest, seem small and ephemeral.

In addition to pruning the trees, almost every year we prune the orchard - culling a few non-performing or very unhappy trees and replacing them with new stock. This year we replaced twelve trees, including eight citrus that were proving just too difficult to protect from frost, and a few peaches and nectarines that were heavily impacted by peach leaf curl every year. We're holding steady at one hundred trees, an accidental round number.

Our larger prunings get segmented for the fireplace or bread oven and the small ones go on a perennial brush pile that hosts quail, sparrows, rabbits, and skunk. 
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