The limits of pruning

The perimeter of a garden not far from where I live was lined, until recently, with mature evergreen trees. They numbered about a dozen: tall, beautiful, and busy with songbirds and various other life forms. Then they were gone, leaving only a series of pitiful stumps. It happened virtually overnight; the following day, the stumps were reduced further, almost to ground level. (See photo; click to enlarge.)

I’d like to give the landowners the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to think of a justifiable reason for their decision. Even if they had one, it’s still a great shame. Anyway, the company employed to fell the trees and remove the timber had a curious sign, and you know how difficult it is for me to resist writing about curious signs.

That “TREE CARE” is obviously and wildly misleading needs no emphasis or elaboration. “Tree Pruning In Progress” made me wonder if there was a sense in which pruning could mean chopping down. I grew up with the idea that pruning was a kind of cultivation: removing dangerous, dead, or superfluous growth, usually to serve a plant’s best interests — essentially a modest and beneficent reduction of the organism. This kind of pruning is visible and audible as I type (see photo, left).

So off I set for the dictionaries. Here are some relevant findings:

Oxford English Dictionary: 1. Cut down, shorten or abbreviate by cutting, esp. by removing superfluous or unwanted matter. Also, remove as superfluous or unwanted. Marston’s text—judiciously pruned… 2. Trim (a tree, shrub, or plant) by cutting or lopping dead or overgrown branches, twigs, or shoots, esp. to increase fruitfulness and regular growth. Freq. followed by down. Prune the plants . . . down to the last active growth. 3. Cut or lop (dead or overgrown branches, twigs, or shoots) from a tree or shrub, esp. to increase fruitfulness and regular growth. Freq. followed by off, away.

Merriam-Webster: transitive verb 1 a : to reduce especially by eliminating superfluous matter <pruned the text> <prune the budget>; b : to remove as superfluous <prune away all ornamentation>; 2 : to cut off or cut back parts of for better shape or more fruitful growth <prune the branches>; intransitive verb : to cut away what is unwanted or superfluous.

Macmillan: 1. prune or prune back: to remove parts of a tree or plant, for example to make it grow better. We’ll need to prune back the branches this year. 2. to get rid of something that you do not need or want, especially in order to reduce the size or cost of something. Companies must continually prune costs to stay competitive.

American Heritage Dictionary: Transitive. 1. To cut off or remove dead or living parts or branches of (a plant, for example) to improve shape or growth. 2. To remove or cut out as superfluous. 3. To reduce: prune a budget. Intransitive. To remove what is superfluous or undesirable.

It seems, then, that chopping down trees can, at a stretch, be described as pruning. But it’s rather misleading because in a botanical context the word carries the chief and plant-friendly sense I mentioned in paragraph 3 above. And then there’s that phrase “TREE CARE”, which is laughably inaccurate, at least in this instance. It’s the kind of care I associate with organised crime (They took care of Louie, huh?)

Two euphemisms in seven words is an impressive count — more impressive than the paltry 10% tree cover Ireland currently claims, very little of which comprises native species. Call me a tree hugger if you wish — I’ve called myself worse — but I’d like to see more signs like this:

And fewer stumps and eyes of Sauron:

Some Irish-tree-related links: Tree Council, Native Woodland Trust, Notice Nature, Irish Wildlife Trust, Crann, and Woodlands of Ireland.

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20 Responses to The limits of pruning

  1. Chris says:

    Interesting note: computational linguists and psycholinguists use the term “pruning” to mean “delete” (i.e., when a grammatical structure is “pruned”, it is deleted from the set of possible representations and nothing replaces it, nor does it allow for growth of more possibilities (this, in fact, would be the opposite of the intended effect). It is a mechanism that simplifies, not complexifies.

    Since linguists talk about syntactic “trees” there clearly was an attempt to choose a term from the arboreal semantic space, yet, as you make clear, they seemed to have chosen poorly. They are doing more chopping down of syntactic trees than they are pruning of them.

  2. Stan says:

    That’s a very interesting note — thanks Chris. At this stage I almost expect an everyday word to have an additional linguistic meaning, but there was no mention of pruning in David Crystal’s Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (3rd ed.). So I appreciate the information.

    It does seem that the word was ill-chosen for its purpose, and that something straightforward like exclude would have been a better fit, or pare or lop if a certain semantic continuity was to be maintained.

  3. Perhaps they thought that cutting the tree at base level would make it grow better next year…..

    From what I hve seen far too much of the tree cover in Ireland is coniferous and not a good local evergreen like the Yew…

  4. Stan says:

    ‘Perhaps they thought that cutting the tree at base level would make it grow better next year…’

    Jams: Or next century. In geological time it isn’t so long ago that most of Ireland was covered in variegated woodland that included a broad range of indigenous deciduous trees. It’s a far cry from the bald, fragmentary sprawl that characterises so much of the land today.

  5. Describing what they did as pruning is a bit like describing being guillotined as a haircut…

  6. Stan says:

    Doubtful: Indeed! I should stress that I don’t in any way blame the tree “carers”. They’re just doing their job, and presumably they carry out milder tree surgery too. But the job I described above seems a dreadful waste, and the company could do with more accurate signs.

  7. Yvonne says:

    I want to love trees, I really do, but my neighbour has a row of Cypress trees that are now higher than the roof of my house. Nothing grows in their shade and they cast a gloom over 50% of my garden. As soon as I can afford the euphemism known as tree care I’m going to avail of it in the hitman sense. That, or head out with a chainsaw in the dead of night. I feel guilty about having such vile thoughts about the natural world.

  8. Stan says:

    Yvonne: It sounds to me as though you do love trees, but that the natural course of this love has been thwarted by the unfavourable position of a few local specimens. My first guess when I saw the stumps nearby was that they were blocking the sun, but I don’t think that’s the case; and even if it were, there was no need to chop them all down. If you follow through with the chainsaw idea, I recommend that you wear a Leatherface mask and have someone videotape the massacre. You never know what use you could make of that sort of footage.

  9. CherryPie says:

    I think tree pruning in this case was very misleading they were actually tree felling.

    Apart from that it does seem such a shame that the local wildlife has been deprived of it’s habitat.

  10. Stan says:

    CherryPie: That’s exactly what they were doing. They really need new signs! This part of Galway has a fair amount of trees and a few small parks, so the birds will find new perches without difficulty. Some of the less visible creatures might not fare so well, though, and many were surely wiped out.

  11. Tim says:

    Maybe they set out to prune them, but when one ended up lower than the others they had to even them out; then another was lower, and so on and so forth. Until only the stumps were left. :)

    Doubtful, but that sure is a super “prune”.

    When I was a kid, we had a gardener friend come and “prune” our blackcurrant bushes. Suffice to say, we never saw blackcurrants grow on them again. :(

    In the forums sense of the word, pruning means to remove obsolete topics. It doesn’t always mean deleting; just removing the threads from the particular forum within which they were posted.

  12. wisewebwoman says:

    You put me in mind of this, Stan:

    “Cad a dheanfaimid feasta gan adhmad, ta deire na gcoilte air lar.”

    I can’t find the rest of this old Irish poem which warned us, many centuries ago, of the danger of tree-chopping.

    It’s a shame your neighbours didn’t listen.

    XO
    WWW

  13. Stan says:

    Tim: Thanks for adding the forum-related meaning of prune. Like Chris’s contribution, it helps me update my understanding of the word. I like your idea that the tree fellers (pun unintended) might have been trying just to even the trees out! Then they could call themselves The Obsessive-Compulsive Tree Care Company. I’m sorry to hear about your blackcurrant bushes. How disappointing that must have been, and all for the sake of a euphemistic pruning.

    WWW: It is a shame. Some people forget all too easily how long it takes for a tree to grow to maturity, and how important are the rich microhabitats they provide. The more urbanised our species becomes, the more ignorant we become of our natural heritage and the degree to which we depend on, for example, plant life. We hang spider plants in our bathrooms and we manicure our lawns, but if an oak stands in our way (or worse: our car’s), down it comes.

    For the benefit of non-Irish-speaking readers, the line “Cad a dhéanfaimíd feasta gan adhmad, tá deire na gcoilte air lár” means “What will we do hence without timber, the last of the woods are on the ground”.

  14. SharonC says:

    The term ‘tree surgery’ has always struck me as somewhat odd. Should the chap you mows the lawn at the park be called a ‘grass surgeon’? Or maybe a ‘Lawn therapist’?

  15. Stan says:

    I love the idea of a lawn therapist, Sharon! Surgery in a botanical context has always seemed strange to me too; nor have I fully adjusted to the word used to denote a talk with a politician, or the room where such a talk takes place. Its medical connotations are comparatively very strong, I suppose. Apparently surgery also has a topological sense. These other meanings make more sense in light of the word’s origin: from Old French cirurgie, from Latin chirurgia, from Greek kheirourgia, from kheirourgos: “working or done by hand”.

  16. Sean Jeating says:

    Excellent post, Stan, interesting comment-section. Instead of repeating a lot of what has been written above, I offer some excerpts of an Irishman’s account [?] with 40 years ‘forestry policy’.

    [...] when the Inter-Party government came to be performed in 1948, one of the few conditions which I made for the participation of Clann na Poblachta in the govenment was the adoption of a greatly accelerated forestry programme. On the basis of preliminary investigations which I had made at that time, I stipulated that the plantation rate should be increased to not less than 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres)per year. This was agreed to with enthusiasm by all parties [...]
    [...]This programme was sumitted by me to the government and endorsed by the government. It was then published as a Government White Paper entitled ‘European Recovery Programme': Ireland’s Long Term Programme, 1953′. It proposed:
    The establishment of 10,000 hectares of ne plantations per annum over a period of 40 years. The ultimate aim was to establish a total productive state forest of 470,000 hectares by the year 1990.

    [...] but this has not been done. Strangely, enough, no one seems to ask why.
    As a result of our failure to implement the afforestation programme decided upon and to make provisions for the utilisation of the timber now coming on stream, our paper industry has been virtually killed. [...] Because no adequate measures were taken to provide for the utilisation of this timber, it is now exported for a derisory sum of £1.00 per ton to Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. There it is converted into pulp, paper and cardboard, and sold back to us. We used to make most of our paper and cardboard requirements. All our newspapers were printed on newsprint made in Clondalkin. Now we import every piece of paper we use.
    In addition [...] we now import 80% of the timber which we use. We spend well over one thousand million pounds on importing timber, pulp, paper, cardboard and other wood products which we should be producing here.

    Seán MacBride, in ‘A Message to the Irish People, Chapter 11. Criminal Neglect of Forestry'; 1985, Mercier Press

    And here’s something (hopefully) encouraging for tree carers (to-be).
    I stumbled upon the video when writing a post about Meeting John McGahern.

  17. Stan says:

    Thank you for sharing that, Sean. I hope you were able to cut and paste it — that you didn’t have to type it out. Either way, I’m grateful. The story of Ireland’s forests is a sad one, at least from the point of view of the present chapter, but it’s far from over yet and there will likely be trees here long after we’re all gone.

    Here’s a coincidence (or a crainn-cidence) for you. Yesterday, before your comment arrived, I watched the video about McGahern’s Leitrim woodland. I had seen it first on your blog last year, at the link you supply above, but I’ve been gathering ecology-related videos for a friend and I stumbled on it again. It was a pleasure to revisit. Such community efforts will go a long way towards sustaining the country’s forest life.

  18. Sean Jeating says:

    Nah, Stan, I quickly put on my skirt :), took the book and transcribed [?] the excerpts; hence the few typos.

    Now, that’s a coincidence, indeed, you had already watched the video, yesterday.
    Yes, with tree carers (sic!) like John McGahern there’s hope that once an effective and lasting (re-)afforestation will not only depend on but a few individuals / groups, but will become something like a national task.

    By the way, Mac Bride’s book, even 25 years after its frist publication, is a commendable read.

  19. Claudia says:

    As always, this is such a rich post, with fascinating comments. Pruning a tree is the fine art of espalier. En français, we call it: la taille en vert. I don’t want to claim that France started the process of growing a tree in two dimensions, but it was practised, in the Garden of Versailles, with Louis XIV. The King was also very involved in the management, and replanting of forests.

    Wonderful to read Sean’s interview with John McGahern, and to watch the video. Tree carers are sorely needed in the New World while we still have full forests that some people seem anxious to cut down.

    BTW Stan, if my English teacher, at school, had mentioned all the interesting subjects you bring to our attention, I would have learned the language much faster instead of miserably failing till I plunged myself into immersion in my mid-twenties.

    Stop, Claude! Time to prune your reminiscences.

  20. Stan says:

    Thanks for sharing some horticultural history, Claudia. It’s a pity your teacher didn’t make English more interesting to you — but then we might not have encountered one another!

    I had heard the word espalier before, but I wasn’t sure if it was in an English or French context. Consulting my dictionaries, I see that in English it means the tree or plant trained to grow against a wall, lattice, or framework; or it can refer to the framework itself or (as a verb) this act of training. It comes from the Italian spalliera (shoulder support), from spalla (shoulder), from late Latin spatula (shoulder blade). Coincidentally I was covering similar anatomical ground, in the context of divination, yesterday evening.

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