Monday, March 06, 2017


Investing Trees with Human Attributes

Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), pp. 220-223 (endnotes omitted):
So close was the relationship of trees to human society that their treatment, like that of horses or children, fluctuated according to changing educational fashion. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries infants were swaddled; and it was widely held that most children would need to be beaten and repressed. Timber trees, correspondingly, were to be pollarded (i.e. beheaded), lopped or shredded (by cutting off the side branches). Hedges had to be regularly laid and trimmed; each county had its own distinctive way of doing so. The trees preserved for ornament were brought severely under human control by gardeners who clipped, pruned and manicured them, even working them into artificial shapes. Yews and privet, particularly in the later seventeenth century, were trimmed into cones, pyramids, birds, animals and human figures. Limes were pleached to form long walls of interlocking branches. In avenues it was customary to lop all the branches off, leaving only a tuft or crown at the top. Fruit trees were splayed out, espalier-fashion, against the garden wall. There were utilitarian reasons for many of these practices, but they were also seen as a kind of moral discipline: 'The luxuriancy and vigour of most healthful trees,' declared John Laurence in 1726, 'is like the extravagant sallies of youth, who are apt to live too fast, if not kept within due bounds and restrained by seasonable corrections.' Regular pruning kept 'all in order, which would otherwise be perfect anarchy and confusion'.

In the eighteenth century, when educational theories became less repressive, the cultivation of trees moved from regimentation to spontaneity. There was a reaction against 'mutilating' trees or carving them into 'unnatural' shapes. Topiary went out of fashion in the reign of Anne. Pollarding was attacked by Moses Cook in 1675: 'I wish there were as strict a law as could be made to punish those that presume to behead an oak, the king of woods, though it be on their own land.' Such mutilation did not merely harm the timber, it was also a distasteful form of violation; and the practice went into decline during the eighteenth century. In the same period the East Anglian habit of shaving trees to leave only a tuft on the top was strongly condemned by Arthur Young, while in 1808 William Mavor denounced the 'vile custom' of lopping or shredding hedgerow elms. In 1790 John Byng attacked what he called the 'savage' Midland practice of barking oaks before they were felled; he compared it to flaying the tree alive. To the aesthete William Gilpin even clipped hedges were unpicturesque. A certain irregularity and wildness of appearance in a hedge, agreed the Scottish poet James Grahame, was more pleasing than a uniform trimness. The tree's free growth symbolized the Englishman's freedom more generally. 'Everyone who has the least pretension to taste,' wrote Alexander Hunter in 1776, 'must always prefer a tree in its natural growth.' In Russia the first action of Catherine II on reading an English book on the 'natural' style of gardening was to forbid any more clipping of trees in the imperial gardens. This was the spirit which would, in due course, lead to the abandonment of swaddling clothes for infants, wigs for men and, for a time, corsets for women, on the grounds that they were unnatural and unspontaneous. In England it even became temporarily unfashionable to remove the bark from felled timber. From the 1750s there was a vogue for the so-called 'rustic' style, with huts, seats and gates made out of undressed branches (like names of modern suburban houses painted on slices of imitation tree-trunk).

Finally, there were people who alleged, as Thomas Tryon reported in 1691, that 'Trees suffer pains when cut down, even as the beasts and animals do when they are killed'. There had always been a good deal of anthropomorphic talk in the gardening books about what conditions trees 'loved' or 'hated'; and in fruit-growing areas it was common to wassail trees by singing, firing guns and offering libations. 'Men must learn to discourse with fruit trees, having learned to understand their language,' thought Ralph Austen, a leading seventeenth-century authority on the subject. In 1653 Margaret Cavendish published a dialogue in which an oak complains to the woodman of being tortured: 'You do peel my bark, and flay my skin, chop off my limbs.' When an oak was felled, reported John Aubrey, it gave 'a kind of shriek or groan that may be heard a mile off, as if it were the genius of the oak lamenting. E. Wyld, Esq., hath heard it several times.' And if that be thought typical of the credulous Aubrey, here, over a hundred years later, is John Constable commenting on a drawing of an ash tree:
"Many of my Hampstead friends may remember this young lady at the entrance to the village. Her fate was distressing, for it is scarcely too much to say that she died of a broken heart. I made this drawing when she was in full health and beauty; on passing some time afterwards, I saw, to my grief, that a wretched board had been nailed to her side, on which was written in large letters, ‘All vagrants and beggars will be dealt with according to law’. The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace, for even then some of the top branches had withered. Two long spike nails had been driven far into her side. In another year one half became paralysed, and not long after the other shared the same fate, and this beautiful creature was cut down into a stump, just high enough to hold the board."
It is not a long step from this to placing conservation orders on trees, in accordance with the view proclaimed by William Morris in 1884 that no one should be allowed 'to cut down for mere profit trees whose loss would spoil a landscape'. Indeed John Ramsay of Ochtertyre, a prominent Scottish landlord (1736-1814), had already declared that 'a noble tree is in some measure a matter of public concern; nor ought its proprietor to be allowed wantonly to strip his country of its fairest ornament.' In 1821 Wordsworth's friend Sir George Beaumont, when travelling in Italy, even bought a pine tree on the skyline at Monte Mario, so as to prevent the local Italians from felling it.

In this now familiar movement to preserve trees, regardless of the economic consequences, we can see many ingredients: planning considerations, a desire for amenity and a feeling that trees were intrinsically beautiful played an obvious part. But people also wanted trees preserved not just for the sake of their appearance, but because of what they stood for. They cherished their associations, their antiquity, their link with the past. A hankering for continuity, a bid for family immortality and a tendency to invest trees with human attributes were all important. Just as men cherished household pets because they were projections of themselves, so they preserved domestic trees, because they represented individuals, families and, in the case of the British oak, the nation itself. Durkheim may have been wrong when he suggested that when men worshipped God they were really worshipping society. But he would have been very near the truth if he had said it about the worship of trees.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.


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