Sunday, 7 December 2008

Chestnut woods in Winter

In the Dead of Winter, Chataignier.

A bright day in December. Nothing moves. The trees are dying and falling to pieces. It is a picture of death. In it I read the passage of the centuries. The path was an ancient medieval road, which has witnessed the passing of villagers to market, rough bloody soldiers in the 100 years war, and throughout time the peasants struggling to their work. The particular species of moss at the bases of the trees shows me that the soil is acid and poor. Before the chestnut trees were growing here, it was probably a heathland, never farmed, but with difficulty grazed by goats and sheep. The chestnut trees were planted to produce food for the peasants.
The trees have been cut and recut throughout time (the process of coppicing), providing firewood and rejuvenating the trees to fruit more prolifically. A count of the tree rings on the smaller branches shows that the last cut was about ninety years ago, significantly at the time of the first great war, after which time the interest and the manpower waned. The original tree was probably planted two or three hundred years ago. Today no-one cares for the fruit or the logs or the timber. Coppicing probably would help to control the dreaded ‘blight’ which is causing the upper twigs and branches to die and probably has killed some trees. This same blight, originally from Asia, killed great forests of trees in North America and has been spreading in Europe since the 1930’s. The timber is useless. The huge cut trunk displays ring shaped splits in the outer sap wood, which the forester calls ring-shake. Any planks cut from such wood would fall apart like onion rings. The cause is probably more a reflection of the poor genetic nature of the trees than disease.
But also, as is obvious, the heart-wood has totally rotted to powder, leaving only the sapwood as a supporting ring. Even so, the tree may well have continued to live, had not the bank given way under its weight and the huge trunk fell across this pathway, still in use as for centuries by farmers going to their fields.
Nevertheless death and decay gives life. Woodpeckers nest in rotted holes. Their droppings add fertiliser to the rotting dust. Insects eat the rot. I search among this deep terreau which has a texture of potting compost for beetle larvae. One day maybe I will find the larva of an exceedingly rare black beetle, with a violet black colour which I know is found in such places, though to my knowledge it is usually found in similar cavities of rotting oaks . One day I may find Limoniscus violaceus. Ancient dying trees have their place in the scheme of things but their continuance is perhaps dependent on the hunters, who value the cover it gives to boar and deer. It is another phase of the landscape history.

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