Wednesday, February 07, 2007


L'émondage means pruning, or lopping of trees, more specifically here it is a practice of harvesting wood, mainly oak and chestnut. Tenant farmers in this part of Brittany were not allowed to fell trees in around the fields they rented, but did have the right to l'émondage: removal of dead and inessential growth for use as firewood. This source of heat being ever at a premium, this method has become standard among all land users, owner and tenant alike, and what is considered inessential wood is taken to extremes, so that all but a topmost branch - and sometimes not even that is spared - is lopped off, at intervals of about every nine years.

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.


andy said...

Now that, quite simply, was a darned good read. My words may be few, but my appeciation is deep. Thanks :-)

herhimnbryn said...

(0). All that andy said.

Bro. Bartleby said...

A wonderful time was had by mind and eye, and reminded me of the trees in Korea being prepared for the coming winter. Here I found a photo of one such "wrapped tree" and hope this link works:'

Anonymous said...

Yes, lovely! It's also perfect for the Festival of Trees - do you know it?

Dave said...

Don't worry, m-l, i already sent this in to the FOTT (and you can too, whenever you see something appropriate like this).

Great post, Lucy. It explained something I've wondered about for thirty years, ever since I visited northern France as a child. I'd never seen trees so rigorously pollarded.

As for wilderness, it doesn't want us to live in it, either! But I do think that we would all be healthier if less intensively managed land were allowed to grow up betwixt and between settled areas as it once did, with wide hedgerows, wooded streambanks, and other corridors connecting it up. I greatly fear the spread of what Vandana Shiva aptly labled a monoculture of the mind.

Larry said...

A very thoughtful and well-illustrated post indeed! Dave Bonta of Via Negativa e-mailed me the link as a possibility for the next Festival of the Trees Blog Carnival.

I'll include a link to this post!

Lucy said...

Thanks so much, all. I'd been mulling this one for a while... yes, I'd love to be at the FOTT.
The link won't work as such, Bro., but I'll try copying and pasting it now. Too true about the monoculture, Dave, and really no need for it; this area produces surplus food the farmers complain they can't sell. we let the trees on our land grow out as much as possible.
It was really lovely to get your comments, every one.

Fire Bird said...

Love the photographs. They are so full of movement somehow. Is the verb 'emonder' then? And what does that literally mean? I'm having this weird fantasy about 'de-worlding' trees...

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post. And the trees - so beautiful. I am always in awe at their indomitable nature, bursting forth with new life despite our maiming.

I particularly love the fifth and sixth pictures in the series.

Lucy said...

Again, thanks indeed for praise indeed.
Yes, the verb is 'emonder', which is a funny one isn't it? Without an French etymological dictionary, I can't explain it. There's a little story attached to my finding the word too, but I think I'll write that up in another post...

Marly Youmans said...

Wandered here from Dave's site... and like this ramble through the trees.

I've always loved the look of ancient pollarded trees, particularly in an old garden. On the other hand, I just plain old love trees and have many favorites that I "visit."

And I like the Ogham alphabet metaphor.

christy lee-engel said...

Dear Lucy,

What a gorgeous post. With its own beautiful branches and deep roots. I loved the opportunity to stroll with you like this, seeing the landscape, and hearing stories, and contemplating relationship with these great beings. And the honoring and appreciation at the end, such a large and graceful embrace.

christy lee-engel said...

By the way, I am really enjoying coming back again and again to look at the photos -- the ones of rows of trees against the sky are especially enchanting me!

Lucy said...

Welcome, and thanks, marlyat2, for taking the the time to come - Dave's site is a great nexus, isn't it?
Thanks, Christy, and lovely to see you here.

chris miller said...

Isn't this arrangement (trees can be trimmed but not felled) a consequence of those historic French laws that provide for perpetual, low rent leases? A relic of French history that gives one class the status of owning the land -- while giving another class benefits not enjoyed by tenant farmers in other countries ? (I haven't read much history -- but that seems to be one curious fact that I may - or may not - be remembering correctly)

Whatever -- it makes for a charming landscape -- and your photo essay is a nice, brisk walk through the fields (and, like you, I tend to anthropomorphize everything I possibly can.

Lucy said...

Sounds likely, Chris.
Thanks for visiting, I have you bookmarked!

Granny J said...

A fascinating read. Now I know the classic name for a process I always called "lollypopping", which happens to old trees locally when they either are intruding on buildings or have too many diseased branches.