At one time, the more substantial branches were put to more durable use, fence posts, beams, sawn for planks; my elderly neighbour remembers how he and his brother as quite little boys would saw planks with a two-man saw in a saw-pit, as the younger and smaller brother he had always to go below in the pit and be covered in sawdust. Everything else, down to the smallest twigs, was bound and burned as fagots, in fireplaces where the draw was so bad that the door had to be left open, thereby reducing the benefit of the fire, to avoid the room filling with smoke.
Now, with tractors and chainsaws and centrally heated homes - most farmers hereabouts disdain to live in old stone farmhouses, which they often sell to starry-eyed British people with more enthusiasm than money and more of both than sense, and generally live in neat modern rendered 'neo-Breton style' dwellings at some distance from their place of work - only the large branches are deemed worth bothering with as firewood. They are chopped into logs, and the brushwood, which can contain quite decent-sized pieces, is piled up in the winter fields and burned in great bonfires which pour heat and carbon dioxide into the open sky, smouldering on for days and days. An enterprising and environmentally aware goat farmer near here is attempting to curb this waste and to persuade others to chip the stuff and use it in special furnaces for some of their energy needs (drying hay, heating sheds, etc), but with limited success, I think. The outlay on plant and man-hours make it economically uninteresting.
The practice of l'émondage is also convenient for modern farming methods and machinery, which have already caused the hedgerows to be reduced drastically. Every last inch of cultivable land can thus be squeezed without spreading branches getting in the way. (Also, chestnuts standing alone need to be pruned, or they can become top-heavy and split.) It has had a marked effect on the look of the countryside; the trees acquire a habit of growth where a plethora of small branches sprout from the trunk radially, and leaving in the topmost branch results in a small, tasselled crown and a variety of quirky, kinked forms and angles, especially visible in the winter months.
At times the trees appear deformed, misshapen, tortured, mutilated, stunted, or like giant furry caterpillars, bizarre.
But in some lights they can, to my eyes, take on a peculiar, stark, calligraphic beauty, like lines of a mysterious Ogham alphabet inscribed across the landscape.
In being shaped by humans, they sometimes seem to have anthropomorphic attitudes and characteristics; they can look like family groups,
Some, like this venerable old grandfather, have clearly reached great age and girth.
The stress of the lopping undoubtedly weakens them, making them susceptible to galls, fungus, and colonisation by ivy. The indwelling creeper makes a tree within a tree, green and opaque all the year round. In winter twilight, the straggling branches radiating from the dark ivy-clad body can give the tree a menacing aspect.
Yet the ivy provides food and shelter for many birds; it supports and conceals nests, blackbirds strip the purplish green berries in hard times, and thrushes find the small yellow and violet snails which seem to be their favourites, and break them on the stones at the base.
I need to know wilderness exists, but I am not sure I could live in it. Wilderness is glorious, but this is not wilderness, but highly managed, intensively used agricultural land, in some ways over exploited and laid waste by farming. The wildwood here is long gone, and even the richly peopled microcosm of the hedgerow is dwindling; these maimed survivors of trees are the vestiges, the ghosts of those things. Yet we still rely on firewood, and we feast quite well on chestnuts in the autumn, as the jays do on acorns. I would like to honour these trees; they may be damaged and struggling, they may have lost their wildwood innocence by the harm we have done them, but they continue to provide warmth and food and shelter, and they maintain, in my eyes and in their fashion, their own character, dignity and grace.