Last week, we saw how the rowans provided the key to Grad Bernart’s deciphering of the language of the trees. This week, we begin to discover just how weird trees are, as Bernart describes his encounters with an old ash coppice. (If you’re not sure what a coppice is, here’s a link to Wikipedia.)
From the grad’s notes:
“One of the ash coppices seemed a particularly good research subject. The coppice stool was several feet across and had seven large stems coming from it. Considering that the stems were all sprouting from what is essentially one tree, I wondered what effect that might have on the sense of self. Would the coppice react as one, single entity; as a community, maybe a family unit; or would each stem be ignorant of its true nature and believe itself to be an unique individual?
At first, the coppice seemed to speak with almost, but not quite, one voice. The signals I received were all variations on “Oo, oo, oo, are you going to cut me back now? Yay!” or “Look at my nice, straight trunk. You’ll get lovely staves and rods from me. Chop me down!” or “I’m almost six, really I am! I’m big enough to be coppiced now!”
It was like talking to a rowan. Individual stems had hints of their own personality but the damn coppice as a whole was absolutely single-minded, turning every query, comment and stimulus into a desperate cry to be chopped down. Honestly, after spending months being bored silly by the rowans, the idiocy of the ash coppice was almost enough to make me give up on this whole research project.
But then I detected a contrary set of signals—an entirely different strand of conversation—coming from the same coppice. This new voice was arguing against the other, saying things like, “They’re lying, they’re spindly and weak. Cut me down, instead! You’ll get much more wood!” and “They’re rotten and full of beetles, you don’t want them. Coppice me! Coppice me!”
This set off a massive argument, with the first voice demanding that I “root out” the “others” and the second voice saying I shouldn’t coppice the first one, that I should “let them grow old, wither and die” instead.
Was I puzzled by this? Of course. But was I also delighted? Yes! At last, I was getting something interesting from the trees!
The mystery of the contradictory coppice was quickly solved when one of the local rangers showed me that the ash stems were actually growing from two separate stools. The stools were so close that, over time, they had grown into one another, merging into what looked like one coppice. So, what initially appeared to me as stems coming from one individual was, in reality, two coppices competing with each other. According to the ranger, this is not an uncommon occurence.
That’s not much of a mystery, I admit, but it was enough to get me talking to other ash coppices. To my relief, I discovered that the obsession of the self-destuctive (or is it other-destructive? or other-self-destructive?) coppice was an effect of its age. Younger ash coppices are happy to chat about birds and ramsons, though they can be obsessively paranoid about deer nibbling at them.
What I find most interesting, however, is how the relationship between individual stems and the coppice stool changes over time. In every case younger stems are highly independent, almost to the point of being unaware of the coppice as a whole. The older the stems get, however, the more their sense of self becomes integrated into a single, coppice-wide identity.
I’ve tried to think of similar behaviour in humans but the only comparison I’ve found is in political or social stratification, where the sense of identity is defined not just as the self but also as part of one or more groups. Humans, however, deal with multiple senses of identity all at once, while coppices transit from self- to group identity over time.
Meh, I’m boring myself. Time to talk to the hornbeam. His conversations are always entertaining.”
That’s it for today. Next week, it’s the heterophony of poplar groves. Spoiler alert: Grad Bernart is not a fan of folk music.