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Resilience Reembodied

Mark Krawczyk, author of Coppice Agroforestry, talks about resilience in his own life and the resilience of woody plants.

In response to the many, shall we say, “irregularities” of day-to-day living in the 21st century, the value of cultivating resilience at the household, community, provincial, and global levels has become increasingly clear. Who among us can’t readily recall a recent instance where our ability to gracefully respond to a challenge has dramatically influenced our happiness and overall physical and emotional well-being?

We’re all constantly bombarded with stressors – car trouble, damaged relationships, unforeseen challenges on the job, lost keys, life dreams unrealized… Yet we somehow find ways to navigate these hiccups to the best of our ability, grow, and move on. Until the next challenge disrupts our path. And the process begins again.

These roadblocks often bring varying degrees of stress into our lives. They also become some of our most valuable teachers, broadening our perspective, contributing to the depth of our life experience, and hopefully stimulating us to grow and mature in ways previously unimaginable. In these instances when we find our fortitude challenged, we see the essential value resilience plays in our growth as living beings.

As an ecological designer and educator, I’m constantly seeking to identify and understand patterns in our lives and the ecosystems we’re a part of. How might we become better humans by more fully appreciating the cycles and time scales of geology, the pauses and pulses of evolution, or the swelling and shrinking of population dynamics? If we want to learn about resilience, there’s perhaps no better teacher than an ecosystem. Ecosystems maintain steadily shifting states of dynamic equilibrium, as countless instances of cause-and-effect have their way with the complex community of organisms and inert resources that together make each unique place behave like a living, breathing meta-organism. And in my own practice as a careful, conscientious observer and participant, trees reign supreme as the purveyors of slow, steady, patient growth and self-repair in the face of an onslaught of forces affecting them. They’ve mastered the art of playing the long game.

When I first really began to get to know trees, I learned to identify them. During one of my most memorable semesters as an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont, my forestry professor John Shane led us along a journey of awareness and observation as we learned how to see these majestic creatures with new eyes. To appreciate the form their growth followed. The pattern of their branching. The shape, size, and textures of their buds, bark, and leaves. And as exciting as it was to learn to identify dozens of tree and shrub species confidently, even in the depths of winter without a leaf to be found, I realized that my connection to trees was still only superficial, and that there were many more layers of complexity that I had yet to learn to appreciate.

So I next came to learn about their preferences, tolerances, products, and uses. Why one species might thrive on one site and not another. Or why and where they tend to form interdependent communities that share resources with one another as they race to capture sunlight and absorb water and minerals while colonizing space above and below ground. This contextual appreciation of woody plants helps expose each one’s personality. From the precocious, prolific oldfield colonizers like the quaking aspen, staghorn sumac, and eastern white pine, to the strong and stoic, shade-tolerant, late-succession species like sugar maple, hemlock, yellow birch, and beech. All of these individuals are part of much larger, nested networks, each playing a crucial part in the evolution of the community, but at the same time, unavoidably affected by the others growing nearby along with the life-giving energies and the life-draining stressors affecting them constantly.

With this evolving understanding of plant communities coming into clearer focus, my head began to give way to my hands as I sought to build more direct relationships with these mighty members of the plant kingdom as a craftsman. I was blessed to be guided by some talented mentors who taught my hands how to feel and follow the wood’s grain, or look at a log and predict the presence of knots within or the relative straightness of the wood. I learned how each species behaves differently in different applications and how they have a unique “feel” when it comes to working with them. But this journey of connection was still not complete; understanding how we actually procure this wood resource and how those actions affect the larger ecosystem became the next frontier. The art and science of silviculture.

And it was this juncture where I began to see the similarities between my own life and that of a tree. Trees follow their own unique life cycles as they pass from the rapid growth and expansion of juvenility, to a more gradual and steady spread of their canopy and stem wood during middle age, eventually giving way to senescence—the phase where they begin to lose productive vigor and gradually transition from living to dead.

Often, this journey is not a linear one, and it’s certainly not without its hardships. Wounds and stressors challenge plant growth and overall health. Yet because trees are perennial organisms both above and below ground, these wounds do not “heal” the way our own physical bodies miraculously do. They wall off and “compartmentalize” this damage by forming barriers within the living wood present at the time of the trauma, helping limit its spread to other healthy parts of the plant. While the damage is always there, the plant forges ahead, wound fully internalized but enveloped in strong, healthy, vital young wood.

Taking this response to disturbance one step further, many woody plants are actually capable of stump sprouting (the subject of my newly released book, Coppice Agroforestry), after they’ve been felled or wounded. When done intentionally to stimulate new sprouts, we call this practice “coppicing.” This means that after cutting a tree at ground level, the plant actually remains alive, nourished by the existing root system. These coppiced plants form new growth originating from stocks of dormant buds that lie patiently below the bark, waiting for an event that demands them to kick into action.

It’s exactly this sprouting response that gives me so much inspiration and hope as a human being who seeks to live a healthy and fulfilling life, and as a person who believes the restoration of the biosphere is essential to our future as a species.

When we coppice a tree or shrub, we initiate perhaps the most extreme form of disturbance possible – we cut down the plant completely to ground level. Yet this doesn’t kill the plant -- it actually causes it to grow aggressively, often generating a vigorous flush of young sprouts, a clear sign that the plant has regained its youthful vigor. If left undisturbed, these young new sprouts will continue to grow until they’re harvested again. And the whole process may once again start over.

So as I ponder this remarkable response to trauma, I find myself stirred to respond accordingly. As stressors express themselves in my day-to-day life, how can I transform them into opportunities to reinvent myself, to open my mind and my spirit to new ways of seeing the world, new opportunities previously unrealized, and to proceed with confidence, vitality, and gratitude? To feel thankful for the depth of these life lessons and to leverage them into becoming a more grateful, adaptable person? And to recognize the challenges we often create when we force things and the elegance that often emerges when we embrace our own unique role/s within our community? To me, this peaceful confidence lies at the core of resilience. And I’ve come to learn and appreciate its value by watching how woody plants navigate the ridges and troughs of life.

My new book, Coppice Agroforestry, is a manual describing how to harness the remarkable resilience of woody plants to generate a diverse range of wood products and ecological services. It’s more of a nuts and bolts how-to type book. But it’s also packed with insights and patterns that help us understand the depth of our species’ relationship with trees, appreciate the unique ways they grow and develop, and ultimately design and manage systems that employ these techniques in our backyards, farmsteads, and communities. And nested within each of these themes are more lessons on how to be our best selves both as caring land stewards and people part of a wider community of beings.

Thanks for indulging me on this philosophical journey, and may trees inspire you to hone and cultivate resilience in your day to day life.

Author Robert Pavlis

Mark Krawczyk owns and operates Keyline Vermont LLC, teaching, designing, and consulting on permaculture design, agroforestry, natural building, traditional woodworking, and small-scale forestry for farmers, homeowners, and homesteaders. He and his wife manage Valley Clayplain Forest Farm in New Haven, Vermont.

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