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November 28, 2004


It's hard to start a proper cut when the tree has sent up this many stems so close to one another. I angle the hand saw, starting a line of cut that angles too high from the perpendicular. No matter, really: pollarding is by no means a precise art. As long as my cuts are relatively clean, the mulberry won't suffer. Still, there is that sense of professional integrity, though I haven't been paid for pruning in 15 years. I can see that the tree has been inexpertly pruned for years - but I'll be damned if I'm going to add another year's worth of stubs to the thing.

Pollarding is an odd art form. Do it in public, and well-meaning passersby will stop and ask you what the hell you are doing to that poor tree. To the uninitiated eye, a pollarded tree can look damned ugly. In fact, even initiated eyes can find the things repulsive. It's a venerable practice, though, originating in the old woodlots of England. Cut all the growth from a tree at about six feet from the ground, and an annual crop of stout poles will grow, high enough to be protected from the depredations of deer. A later generation of arborists realized that pollarding would keep large trees planted in cities to a manageable size.

Farris can't do the pruning anymore, since the accident that ruined his back. "If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have put either of these trees in." He points to the other tree, a magnolia that sheds spent flower buds onto his lawn in prodigious amounts. I smile from my perch, suggest a younger Farris might consider planting a redwood back in 1960 or therabouts. The older version snorts. "There's no way I'd ever put one of those in. It'd fall on my house."

Farris moved here from Ada, Oklahoma a half century ago, a latter-day Okie come west to work on the crews that built the great aqueducts. "I'd get rooms in the little West Side towns," he told me once, "and commute to the job site. As the work site moved, I'd move too. I lived in all them little towns: Newman, Patterson, Westley, Crows Landing."

This morning, he walked through our backyard - "first time in fifteen years I've been back here" - and examined the soil behind the shed I'm slowly fitting out as a writing office. "I think it was here? maybe a little bit over here... it was about six feet deep, three by three feet or so" - he gestured with his hands, breathing a bit heavily - "they filled the well up with rocks and soil, but the masonry's still there.

"I guarantee you, though: you dig down six feet anywhere in your yard, you'll find water. Two feet this time of year."

From the top step of my wobbling ladder, I wave as Farris heads around the corner to the Green Lantern, our conveniently located neighborhood biker bar. Since the accident, he's spent most of his days there. "What else am I supposed to do?" he explains. The sun's in my eyes, so I move the ladder and climb again. From the closest knob of growing points, a forest of whips the thickness of number two pencils block my saw from the larger poles. The loppers make short work of them. Out comes the Silky saw, pinnacle of Japanese arboricultural technology. The best Japanese pruning saws cut on the pull stroke, an important consideration when you're pruning a tree from the inside without benefit of harness. Stability comes from drawing the blade inward. Pushing outward is weakness; a fall onto the agave follows.

The saw is fiendishly sharp. I have likely anointed the trees in this county with a pint of my blood over the years. Today, I am lucky. I bring down one fifteen-foot pole after another. A quick cut beneath so that the bark does not tear down the stem - again, an unlikely problem in a pollarded mulberry, but they also anoint the condemned man's arm with Betadine before administering the lethal injection. Three quick pulls along the upper edge of the pole, and long wands of mulberry leaves wish through the cool air.

I have moved my truck the twenty feet from my driveway to Farris'. I load the poles and whips and leaves, drive all the way back home, pull out the chipper-shredder, untangle the utility cord. A mere hundred twenty minutes of pushing wood and leaves into the blades, cursing as the machine jams and must be cleaned each ten minutes, and I have a yard of new compost fodder, steaming as the sun sets, redolent of mulberry leaf. I will put it atop the alder chip bed I inoculated with stropharia mushroom spawn in summer, wait for the giant boletes to burst through the cover. In the kitchen compost bin near where Farris dowsed my old well, inky caps struggle up through the rabbit litter. I try to catch them when they're still edible: a day too late, and they deliquesce into thick black tears.

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 28, 2004 05:47 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I liked this piece, Chris. There are lots of pollarded trees the minute you cross the border into French Canada, and in winter you can really see the years of pruning. I like the look and have always been curious to try it - but like espaliers, pollarded trees are strangely artificial to the American eye - guss we'd rather just cut the damn thing down if it gets too big, or prune a big hole in it for the telephone wires.

Posted by: beth at November 29, 2004 01:30 PM
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=v= I've seen so much bad pollarding that I cringe at the word. San Francisco is the worst; just look out from City Hall or at the trees in the Golden Gate Park Music Concourse that they didn't chop down. Ugh.

You're the expert, though, and you say it's venerable, especially in England. I'm inclined to believe you, but can you answer one question? Did you ever envision the Whomping Willow as pollardable? Did Chris Columbus create it that way in the second Harry Potter movie because it's a venerable British wizard thing or because he's from San Francisco and doesn't know better?

Posted by: Jym at November 29, 2004 10:19 PM
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Not knowing squat about Harry Potter, I have to say I don't know.

But the pollarded trees you mention in SF don't seem that poorly done to me.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at November 29, 2004 10:23 PM
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