Blog: Indigenous knowledge

The old tradition of pruning a willow tree. As seen on YouTube.
Luuk Slegers

The wind is creeping in between my pants and my leather jacket, and I swear under my breath, tugging around a bunch of branches. Willow branches to be exact, ‘Salix alba’ branches to be even more exact, for you bunch of natural science freaks. Anyway, we have one of those in the garden, a few years old, with a nice gnarly ball-shape on the top, from all the pruning.

I have had many foreigners asking me why we mutilate our trees. I have taken offence every single time. ‘We used to make fences, and tools, and baskets, and… stuff, from them’, I would explain proudly. ‘We are just honouring the tradition. They belong in our cultural landscape.’ Now, I too, like a good Dutchman, have had the privilege of pruning our willow tree a few weeks ago. There is a whole technique to it so that both you and the tree survive. If you are not Dutch, you could not possibly understand, the richness of our culture is not just limited to our exquisite cuisine.

Now, I too, like a good Dutchman, have had the privilege of pruning our willow tree

So, I am now tugging these branches around because we are going to weave a willow fence—a nice traditional, zero-waste, ‘climate-proof’ and whatnot fence of woven branches. I drag around a big branch, maybe four meters in length, nice and supple, and bring it over to a log we have lying around. I lay it on top, and by lack of proper tools, start brutishly swinging an axe at it. It is not very effective, but it gets the job done. I repeat the process until the branches are cut into pieces that can be sorted by their girth and flexibility. The thick ones will be the poles, the thin, supple ones will be used for the weaving.

We drive the fresh poles into the ground. After five centimetres of soil or so, most get stuck on a root or something. After a bit of screaming and crying, they are standing, a five-year-old could pull them out with one hand, but we hope they will be reinforced by the rest of the structure.

We start weaving, going well, looking good, crack, the third branch snaps

We start weaving, going well, looking good, crack, the third branch snaps. Okay, okay, no problem; we replace it. We have a few layers already. Over, under, over, crack, one of the supporting poles breaks, and the structure is compromised. I scream internally, staring at the broken pole. It’s cold. Tomorrow will be warmer.

Inside, behind my computer, I consult YouTube. A scruffy old Scot demonstrates to me, again, how to grow, harvest, sort, store, soak, and weave the willow. He is a magician, speaking so slowly and moving his hands so fast. He seems thoroughly content with his life. How far we’ve come, from knowing how to build a simple fence, to watching YouTube videos of somebody building a simple fence while wondering why we feel so empty.

Luuk Slegers is a Masters student of Sociology, majoring in International Development. He lives on Droevendaal in Wageningen with his five housemates and likes to start the day with a walk through Bennekom forest.

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