The coulter rusts Posted on April 26, 2022

‘Rewilding’ makes it sound positive and trendy. ‘Glamping’ is the next thing that springs to mind. On our farm in deepest France it was simply logical; the inevitable outcome of poor land, low prices, and dearth of labour. Indeed, scarcity of inhabitants. The French term for abandoned land, or fringe hand never brough into cultivation, is ‘friche’. We had lots, once either grazed or even ploughed, since then just neglected as scrub invaded. Parts were rocky, other parts inclined to bog. There were open spaces where purple orchids made an appearance and impenetrable tangles of blackthorn and bramble and incipient hornbeam and oak. ‘Bramble nurses oak’ was almost a local saying.

My antique Massey Ferguson could, noisily, clear paths – backwards. I would raise the ‘girobroyeur’ , the hydraulic shredder, to about waist height, set the heavy spinning blade going, and back into the tangle with a crash, juddering and sending torn branches flying. Then I would do it again, with the contraption a fraction lower. A few ear-shattering passes like this and a rough track, full of snags, appeared. The midges appeared with it, or, worse, clouds of the tiny insects called aoutats (relating them, I suppose, to August; they appear after harvest). Aoutats are the larvae of a spider, but whereas the spider does no harm, its larvae get under your skin – in every sense. Once a cloud of them bit me all over, most maddening when they invaded the palms of my hands. Thunder bugs, thrips, ticks; I’m no entomologist or arachnologist. I simply say don’t stint on the geranium oil.

My tracks enabled me to explore parts of the farm that no one had bothered with for decades. You could tell how long by the height of the trees – on their way to becoming the eventual forest. Birch is always one of the pioneer trees, but some of our land was so dry and acid that even birches stalled and died. Here and there a juniper struggled through the undergrowth. Hornbeam and oak were the first species to become seriously established, along with wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis, which grew even in the driest and darkest conditions, regardless, it seems, of soil acidity off the chart.

Foresters showed me their patient way of converting friche to woodland; a question of watching the canopy, at whatever height, year after year,and cutting out anything that competed for the light with something more desirable. Most often it was hornbeam, at twenty or even thirty feet, blocking the light from a slender oak. They felled the hornbeams (whose coppice would probably survive to grow several new stems, unless the ubiquitous deer munched it first.). The oak, released, would go on for another century or so to become a valuable tree and parent of many more.

The coulter? The Duke of Burgundy in Shakespeare’s Henry V laments his war-torn land. ‘Nothing teems but hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burrs….while that the coulter rusts that should deracinate such savagery.’ Reluctant rewilding.

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