At first sight it may look like a massacre, well that’s what I thought when I first saw the way the Bretons cut their trees. Then when I moved across the channel to live in Central Finistere I began to understand that the hedgerows or talus were as valuable as the crops in the fields. Pollarding a tree every ten years gave wood for warmth and cooking while the mass of small branches were tied into faggots and used for heating the bread oven. This is the domestication of trees, no longer growing wild in ancient forests but managed as a crop between field separations. My first impression of central Brittany was as a forgotten land of sleeping beauty, abandoned, peaceful, a step back to my childhood and yet full of myths and mystery.
Pierre Le Lay sat almost invisible in the dung dark of the cowshed, his head pressed deep into Marguerite's flanks, Marguerite being one of seven slow moving beasts with whom he prefers to hold his council. He and his sister Eléen had hand milked their cows for decades, and never in all those years had they once thought of taking a holiday. The silence between them could be put down to the daily habitual tasks they methodically undertook, or one could mistake the peace for that of an old married couple who had long since said everything there was to say. One of the two new calves stood blinking at the doorway into the sparkle of a dew-light morning that held the certainty of another still hot day. An arrogant male sparrow wiped his beak on the weather beaten spigot hung door his rhythmical action as if sharpening a knife in preparation to carve the Sunday joint. His mate threw herself with great gusto into the dust dry hollow at the roadside and a powder-puff cloud enveloped her as she fluffed herself up to twice her normal sparrow like self. The fast growing brood of multi-coloured young chickens roamed the yard unfinished in their juvenile feathered form, moving with measured gate, their precise pecking and expert concentration belying their youth as they worked their way around the lower slopes of the oozing midden. On the top side of the five acre field the oak trees stand naked and armless stripped of their branches after the ten year cut. Hundreds of dormant shoots now burst from the pollard trunks and over the following years the trees will take on the familiar shape of the farmed French oaks, locally known as the têtards, or tadpoles. The barn is stacked high with logged wood and in the yard the oak harvest stands drying in neat walls of logs, from small limbs to brushwood bundled nothing is wasted.
The hedgerow harvest leaves the massive lumpy forms trimmed back in what seems like a brutal fashion but which allows the trees to re-grow from at times a centuries old trunk. This method of cutting makes it possible to obtain a greater quantity of wood in a sustainable way as the already well established tree will put on growth far quicker than a newly planted tree.
These were my first impressions which over the past twenty years have been shattered by the brutal hand of progress, where trees are cut at ground level with the greed of a final harvest before the hedgerow is removed completely.
Têtards have been a particularly local feature of this region for centuries but in recent years the once familiar skeletal winter hedgerow form has changed. After the passing of the remembrement, where small parcels of land were regrouped to form more economic use of land the government also encouraged massive demolition of hedgerows. This destructive process set in a continuing cycle of destruction with ever larger machines able to destroy in minutes what their ancestors had taken centuries to create. This land was so rich in wood that it was not uncommon to see the front door left open while a blazing fire filled the chimney. Now when the old farm house and fields were sold off practically every tree was removed in a final harvest and many an English buyer arrived horrified to take possession of their denuded fields. The closing years of the eighties saw the end of a way of life as the peasant farmers moved into retirement and their children who had abandoned this land showed no signs of wanting to return. This led to evident change and a tremendous loss of charm as a worn out generation could no longer maintain the required upkeep by hand.
Thankfully there are a few who understand the wisdom of the old ways and in my hamlet of Lezele we are trying to re-establish the remaining tetrads. To pollard a tree after many years of neglect requires leaving one or two branches to help draw the sap up to enable re-growth and after a couple of years those branches can also be removed leaving the tree ready to continue its ten year cycle trim.
There would seem no possible similarity with this method of gathering fuel and that found in the Outer Hebrides since trees are extremely rare and the only cutting is that of peat. However the traditional use of this sustainable resource of fuel is also at risk of changing with the introduction of machines to do the cutting and fewer young people prepared to take on this exhausting work, and yet when the drying and bringing in is over there is that same satisfaction of admiring ones peat stack as there is in a well made stack of firewood that gives a glow of warmth way before any fire is lit. A well maintained talus and well cut peat bank are both a beauty to behold. There is however one big bonus with cutting peat in that it is silent with no ear splitting chainsaw wining against the chorus of spring birdsong. Now that March is drawing to a close and the sap begins to rise the wood cutting comes to a close but out on the Scottish Isles the harvesting of peat will not start for another month or more.