Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pollarded trees

I was struck in Chapter 2 by Stendhal's description of some trees because it strikes me as emblematic of one of the central themes:
...what I object to in the Cours de la Fidelite is the barbarous manner in which the authorities keep those sturdy plane trees trimmed and clipped short. Instead of looking, with their low, rounded, flattened heads, like the commonest of vegetables, they would like nothing better than to take on the magnificent form they develop in England. But the mayor's will is despotic, and twice a year the branches of all trees belonging to the commune are mercilessly amputated. ...

"I like shade," replied Monsieur de Renal... "I have my trees trimmed to make them give more shade, and I can't imagine what else a tree is made for if, unlike the useful walnut tree, it doesn't bring in money."
This specific kind of tree-trimming is called pollarding. It isn't seen much in North America, but is pretty common in European cities. It's an ancient practice, a way of making a tree that would otherwise be very large into a manageable street-tree. As you can see from the picture, the tree forms big bulging nodes on the end of its branches (my Dad used to call these "cat-heads", but I'm not finding a confirmation of that term on the web). These nodes don't get any higher, year after year, because a tree only grows bigger around, not taller, except at the very ends of its branches. Slender shoots spring up from the nodes, and when they start getting too big, they are trimmed back.

(My father's a plant pathologist. While your dad was teaching you to juggle or play pool, this is what mine was teaching me.)

Anyway, the trees in the story suggest something I'm seeing throughout: conformity and how much it hurts. How we bend over backwards and mutilate ourselves to meet ridiculous standards of behaviour, success, decency. These are disingenuous, hypocritical trees. They will provide the shade they are required to provide, no matter how ugly it makes them.


Blogger Isabella said...

Oh, they're really ugly, being denied their true selves. (I don't see those pictured providing much shade though.)

Ah, yes, conformity hurts, but it's all for the greater good.

1:33 PM  
Blogger marydell said...

So that's what's going on with the trees in Geneva! The first time I went there, I thought to myself about how they had some freaky trees. I had no idea they were regular trees make to look that way on purpose.

Thanks, Rachel!

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got back from Geneva and seeing those pollarded, rather freaky trees (Plane trees which are really a hybrid form of the American Sycamore tree and oriental sycamore) kept me up at night! I had no idea till I saw your Blog what was going on!

2:51 PM  

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