Pruned Trees. Photo by Abby flat-coat.

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South Writ Large recently interviewed William Bryant Logan, author of Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gifts of Trees.


What inspired you to write your new book, Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees?

It was a chance encounter: I started out to learn a technique and found a way of life. I had to learn how to do ornamental pollarding—an uncommon pruning technique in modern gardens—for a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In pollarding, we cut the branches back hard at least six feet off the ground. In the related technique called “coppicing,” we cut almost all the way to the ground. The trees resprout and grow. I did my due diligence. Few people knew how to prune in this way, but in England first—and then around the world—the people who knew how the pruning was done began to show me ancient examples, intended not simply for ornament but as a means to get wood for charcoal and for building and to get crops of leaves—called “leaf fodder” in Norway—to feed to their animals. First, I was shocked to see that some of these often-pruned trees were still alive after so many cuttings. The Westonbirt Arboretum in England, for example, contains a lime (linden) tree that has been cut to the ground and allowed to resprout for 2000 years. It shows no signs of decline. Second, I soon began to learn that the woodlands made with these methods—found around the world and on every continent—were longer lived, more diverse, and healthier than the surrounding uncut woods. This revelation set me off on a double quest: to learn more about this symbiotic art and to study the amazing creativity of trees that allows the work to happen. Sprout Lands is the result. It shows that in the past we have been able to act sustainably in the world around us, and its lessons suggest how we can do so again.


Your book explores a fascinating and seemingly paradoxical practice: pruning trees to stimulate growth. Can you explain to our readers how and why this process of destruction actually keeps trees healthy?

I had exactly the same response, but up until about two hundred years ago, people would not have been so surprised. In John’s gospel, for example, Jesus compares himself to a vine and the church to its branches. “Every branch that bears fruit,” He said, “[my Father] prunes to make it bear more fruit.” In the premodern world, it was taken for granted that pruning could be creative, not destructive.

Trees are just as alive as we are, but they are very unlike us. No tree grows to adult stature and then stops. Instead, it spends its whole life growing, repeating the same pattern of stem and leaf at every scale from a huge trunk to a new twig. Because trees make their own food out of sunlight, they have become specialists at opportunistic spreading, putting out new photosynthetic surface (leaves) at every opportunity. An opening to the sun, a pruning cut, a deer’s browsing, storm breakage, pest damage. . . . To all of these the tree responds by sprouting. For an animal, a wound seldom represents an opportunity, but for a tree, it does. Sprouting is a way to have a long life in a place, when you do not run from danger or run toward food.

But this does not mean that a person can just whack a tree thoughtlessly and expect it to grow. Pollard and coppice were arts developed over millennia. People learned how much and how large they could cut without doing harm. When they were greedy and ignored what they knew, they lost their symbiotic woodlands. Crape myrtles are famous in the South for the way people mercilessly top them. There is even a name for it: crape murder. It is also possible to beautifully pollard them. We need to relearn these arts. It is about becoming intimate with our woods again.


What trees that are native to the American South particularly benefit from this practice?

Many trees can be pollarded or coppiced, but Europeans arrived in America at the outset of the Industrial Age, when these ancient techniques were regarded as backward. The tribal peoples in the Americas had depended upon the same sprouting properties of trees, but they had done their pruning by burning, not cutting. In the Southeast, many tribes had nuts—especially of hickory and oak—as staples. Burning kept the landscape open, so the light-loving nut trees could propagate and spread. It also burned back fruiting shrubs and trees—from pawpaw to elderberry—so they could sprout again, increasing their production of edible and medicinal fruit.

When Europeans came, it was in the hills that the old ways hung on longest. Black locust was a favorite plant to pollard or coppice. The new sprouts were excellent for fence posts. As they grew, they could be used for sills of houses. The wood of the species was prized because it does not decay in contact with the ground. Mulberries might also be pollarded to keep their fruit in reach of the pie maker.


You have traveled all around the world, investigating sprout lands in far-flung regions. Can you tell us about a few of your most memorable trips?

Sprout Lands is entirely owed to the generosity of those who showed me the land they loved. Mainly, they walked my socks off! Where other tourists were going to see monuments, I was after ancient trees. In the act, however, I learned much more than I bargained for. My teachers not only knew the arts, but their own lives had been changed by what they practiced.

I met a shepherd named Patxi Barriola in a village in Navarra. He was eighty-eight years old. He had retired from keeping his sheep just the previous year. He had spent seventy-three years on the job! His main connection to pollarding was cutting his ash trees every year or two to harvest leafy branches that he could feed in winter to the sheep. I asked him if we were glad to be done with that old routine. He looked at me like I was nuts. “I would be up there now,” he answered, “if only I could. It was a good life. It suited me.”

In Japan, a forester named Chiba-san showed me how he was trying to make people from the city regain an intimacy with the woods. Most of the woodlands in his area had been converted to cedar plantations, so he was teaching people to use chainsaws and other tools to thin out weak trees, leaving more room for the others to grow and eventually allowing oaks to regenerate. When he was done showing me the work, he said he had a rehearsal and asked if I wanted to come along. I had no idea what it was, but I agreed. It turns out that Chiba-san is a principal dancer in a Kagura troupe. My wife and I watched for an hour and a half as he and his partner danced an astonishing Noh-like, wordless drama that mimed the creation of the islands of Japan. The art dates from the eighth or ninth century and was once performed by lineages of dancers. Now, it is maintained and carried on by foresters and farmers.

The arborist Samuel Alvarez walked me through hundreds of acres of lapsed oak pollards in the north of Spain. They looked like ancient Ents. I found myself waiting for them to begin to move. Among his prizes was an ancient oak that had gone completely hollow maybe a century ago. A beech had rooted inside it and now grew up out of the old oak. The two were entwined, living a common life, like the old couple in the Metamorphoses whom the gods turn into trees. He could not get enough of these trees, and he was almost in tears that he could not get the authorities to protect them.

I could go on and on. The wonderful professor Ingvild Austad took days to show me the way people farmed in Norway. She led me from the lowland farms all the way up to the summer farms and back. She showed me how this amazingly intelligent practice of moving the farm with the seasons made it possible to work sustainably on a living landscape. It also created a rhythm of life that bound people to the world around them, often gladly.

Above all, perhaps, was Jose Miguel Elosegui, who ran me all over the landscape of Leitza in Navarra. His intimate knowledge and love of the place infected me to the core. The map of Leitza he had made—it is 3×4′ in size!—is at once intimate and accurate. It shows everything from megaliths to lime kilns, to farms, to hunting blinds, to wind turbines. This is what every map should be: a record of our relationship to the land.


Why do you think the practice of pruning trees to generate growth became a lost tradition, forgotten over the centuries?

The Industrial Age destroyed the practice and was at pains to make it disappear from memory. At some time in the early nineteenth century, the saw became cheaper than the axe for the first time. With large mechanical saws, you would easily cut planks and boards from trunks. The more laborious earlier practices declined in importance. Modern foresters denigrated the ancient ways, asserting that the only people who practiced them were stupid, backward country bumpkins. The older practices could be done by anyone who had been taught by an elder. The newer practices encouraged industrial milling and plantation forestry, practiced by specialists at higher cost. The new ways were a part of the trend that has almost entirely separated people from the world that sustains them, reducing them to the status of consumers.

The old ways are now finding new life. Short rotation coppice—often using black locust—provides wood for fuel. In California, since 2011, the coppice burning traditionally done by the tribal people is no longer illegal. Many in the state are turning to the tribes to learn how to manage their landscapes by controlled burning, so massive wildfires cannot occur. In Africa, tribes are learning that instead of depending upon massive, foreign-funded planting projects to regenerate their woodlands, they can coppice existing trees and allow them to resprout, creating new forests themselves. This is in part a re-learning of the fire coppice once practiced there.


In your book, you quote Henry David Thoreau, who wrote that man ought not to despair of life’s hardships because, “Is he not a sprout-land too after never so many searings and witherings?” How might humanity recover and even flourish in the years ahead, after the searings and witherings inflicted upon the globe by COVID-19?

What an interesting thought! Thoreau lived in a time when a long life was by no means assured. The graveyards of Massachusetts are full of mothers who died in childbirth, children who died in infancy, and thousands who died of infectious diseases. It is interesting to me how much during COVID, people were able to become creators again, not just consumers. We had to learn again to play with our children. So many people took to baking that the King Arthur Company ran out of flour. Garden seed companies sold out of product before the end of winter. People who had the good fortune to have their elders near them could spend time with them. COVID has offered us the chance to sprout again, as active loving communities. May we not forget it.

One thing gardeners can do is to learn to coppice and pollard. Coppiced willow can be gorgeous: plants like the wonderful red and yellow stemmed Flame willow. You can also use them to weave willow sculpture, willow buildings, and willow tunnels. You can make living fences. Pollards can also become woven fences and allees. Pollards make excellent urban trees, because they do not grow too large and their roots are slow to lift sidewalks. They can be planted under wires. Such practices are not only beautiful and not only homage to ancient practices, but also a way for us to become intimate companions with trees again.


Your book recently received the John Burroughs Medal, a prize named after the famed naturalist and author. In what ways has your work been inspired by his literary legacy?

Burroughs was raised on a farm in the Catskills. He had a farm boy’s intimate knowledge of the birds, the animals, and the plants in his landscape. He never made the mistake of thinking that primal, untouched nature—a fiction created by the Industrial Age—was always sullied by human beings. In this, he more resembled the wonderful British poet John Clare than many a touted environmentalist. His essays range from amazing and accurate evocations of the lives of birds he knew almost as well as they knew themselves, to memories of his own childhood taking cheese to market. One of my favorite Burroughs essays is about the cow he kept while he was a government worker in Washington, DC, during the Civil War. At that time, the National Mall was a commons for the animals of everyone who lived around it. He would turn Chloe loose in the morning. Every evening, she returned home lowing.

Like Burroughs, I do not believe that nature is an environment, a separate realm apart from us. We are just as much a part of nature as a spider, a vireo, a mushroom, a bacterium, a redwood, or a planarian. It is a question of how we behave as members of that endless web. I am deeply interested in how we can recover the intimacy with the world we inhabit that so many of the figures in Sprout Lands showed. We do not need to be despoilers of nature. Only the Industrial Age has made it seem so.


Are there any beloved books you might recommend to readers who are becoming acquainted with botany?

Two books by the wonderful French tropical botanist Francis Hallé. One is called In Praise of Plants. There, he shows how differently plants live from animals. He makes us know, sense, and feel them as living beings, indeed as our elders. The other is called Atlas of Poetic Botany, a series of accounts of some of the strangest trees he met during a lifetime of travels in tropical forests around the world. The book amazes the reader with the creativity and adaptability of trees. One insect-eating tree, for example, found there were not enough insects in one part of its habitat, so it adapted its flower—which had evolved to lure, trap, and digest insects—to become a food stop and a bathroom for tiny shrews. The shrew poop gives the tree the nitrogen it needs!

The other book I value deeply is Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. She sees her fundamentalist upbringing at a junkyard on the outskirts of a Georgia town with clear eyes, but also with love. I cannot remember reading a better evocation of childhood play than her account of pretending to be a schoolteacher to her two badly behaved brothers, using the blue chassis of a junked car as her blackboard. In the process, she recounts her increasing love of and care for the world around her, sometimes abetted by her difficult father. She admires his ability to take a prudent course of action that can make things work, and the reader sees this same capability in Ray, as she become a champion for the preservation and restoration of the native longleaf pine.


What literary projects are you currently working on? We are looking forward to reading your future work!

Trees are wonderfully creative. I am currently writing essays and creating brief videos about their ability to make a virtue of necessity. Because they cannot move, they must make a home of the place they are given. This ability is marvelous to me, and it is something that I think we all should learn from. We typically regard trees as passive creatures, needing our protection, when in fact they are far more resilient and longer lived than we are. We ought to recognize them as our teachers. This may be the direction that my next book takes.