Friday, November 20, 2015

Raising a Crop of Oak Bark

"She was tired by the time she reached the place where her father and brother we working.  They were cutting oak trees that had been stripped of their bark.  That bark was in high demand by the tanners in Saarburg.  Leni always thought the trees looked naked when she saw them after the Lohe harvesting had taken their bark."  HOUSE OF JOHANN, Chapter 13

On my first research trip in Kreis Saarburg, Ewald Meyer, the author of the book "Irsch/Saar; Geschichte eines Dorf" a history of Irsch, took me on several tours of that area.  When we neared a small forest of oak trees, Herr Meyer made a point of telling me that there were no tall oak trees in the Irsch area because, in earlier times, the bark of the oak trees was stripped off and sold to the tanneries along the Saar River.  The thought flashed through my mind but I didn't ask him how the trees managed to survive without their bark.  Little by little that year, I learned that it wasn't just squirrels who needed the oak trees.

Lohhecken, the oark hedges that formed a forest of small trees were not a natural creation. They existed because man had formed this type of forest in a very specific way to turn it into a cash crop. In the past, portions of these oak hedges were stripped of their bark and cut to the ground.  That explained how they survived without their bark.  They didn't!

The bark stripping was done each year, but in different parts of the oak forest.  A group of trees grew to the right size to be cut about every 20 - 30 years.  The bark was carefully stripped off of the trees. It killed the tree.   The underlying wood could be used for a great many needs of the villagers; either homemade items like buckets or benches or more highly finished pieces like cabinets, tables and chairs, etc. The thin branches could be used as firewood.  But it was the bark that was of primary importance.

The bark was sold to one of the eight tanneries in Saarburg along the Saar River.  They needed tannic acid, made from the bark of the oak trees, in the production of leather.  These tanneries did a good business in the production of high quality leather, much of that leather used for the boots of the Prussian military.  The farmers were paid for this bark, delivered by the load.

After the oak trees were cut, that field could be used for regular crops.  In the following two years, grains were planted in the section that had been stripped of its trees.  Rye was planted in the first year and harvested.  In the second year, the field was used to grow buckwheat.  By the third year, a new forest was beginning and the sweet broom thickets known as Ginster grew between the new trees.

Oak trees can put out new new growth from their stumps. Thus, the oak trees began to grow again -several new tree shoots would grow from the old root. This kind of growth went on for another  20 - 30 years.  By that time, the forest looked as it had when it was cut 20 years before, leaving new stumps and also the old stump from which the new ones had sprung.  There developed a thick coppice.

Oak bark was the cash crop that saw many a farmer through a bad growing year for their other crops. Since the majority of Lohhecken hedges were privately owned, a patchwork of small areas, all at a different age, dotted the farm lands.  The plants and animals sheltered by the hedges varied depending on the size of each part of the hedge, and which plants and animals needed more sun (small trees) or heavy shade (oak ready for bark stripping).

After about 200 to 250 years, the stumps had to be removed and replaced with new oak trees, or so says the article I read to find this information.  As the tanneries went out of business, the oak trees remained uncut and kept their bark, but after 100 some years, the trees are not as tall as one would expect from village forest land that is over 1,000 years old.

As Ewald Meyer said, there are no tall oak trees in the fields around Irsch.  Their tree ancestors gave their lives to help our ancestors survive.

Saarburg, Geschichte einer Stadt: Band I, Im Strom der Zeiten.  Stadt Saarburg, 1991

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