The Mast-Head: My Own Lop Fence

Bonac bonsai

Time was that people here bent small oaks to mark property lines. They were called lop fences, and more than a few remain visible on roadsides if you know where to look. Or not look; what seems to be a lop fence can be found at the edge my house lot in Amagansett on a plot of land that has been in the family since the 19th century.

Best I can figure, these particular bits of work were not fences exactly. Rather, they were an easy way to mark boundaries that, if done correctly, would last for years. Trees grow vertically; a horizontal half-trunk is likely the work of human hands long ago, a kind of Bonac bonsai.

Old books that mention lop fences suggest that, in fact, they were just that, fences, or at least parts of fences made from brush. Stone walls, like those found as near as Connecticut across the Sound, are almost never seen here, appropriate rocks being hard to come by on the glacier-sourced sandbar that is Long Island.

The lop fence in my side yard should have been obvious to me. Growing up, it was a favorite climbing tree, and at one point I got in trouble with my father for taking an antique pew door down from the attic and nailing it unknowingly into its branches as a down payment on a tree house.

It does not look like all that much, a scrub oak of about 20 feet high with a trunk that divides about two feet off the ground. The lopped portion, called that presumably because some kind of axe-work was involved, juts out horizontally almost due south from the main trunk, and is nearly as thick.

It was only recently, walking around the property with an old survey, that it occurred to me that the climbing tree was most likely a marker like those I liked to go see from time to time in Northwest Woods. While not precisely on the line, as shown on the paper I carried, the tree was close enough. That the branch that had been split and bent more than a century ago ran from north to south sealed that conclusion.

My lop fence is a small one by local standards. If you take a drive along Springy Banks Road you can see quite a few of them, including the largest one I know, near where Hand’s Creek Road runs in. This lop fence tree is worth pulling over into the small town parking area nearby and getting out of the car to see. The portion that follows the ground seems as big around as a rhinoceros. Whoever made it must have been showing off, or at least had a lot of time on his or her hands.