IN what does the beauty of a tree consist? We mean of course what may strictly be called an ornamental tree, not a tree planted for its fruit in the orchard, or growing for timber in the forest, but standing alone in the lawn or meadow, growing in groups in the pleasure ground, overarching the roadside, or bordering some stately avenue.
Is it not, first of all, that such a tree, standing where it can grow untouched, and develop itself on all sides, is one of the finest pictures of symmetry and proportion that the eye can anywhere meet with? The tree may be young, or it may be old, but if left to nature, it is sure to grow into some form that courts the eye and satisfies it. It may branch out boldly and grandly, like the oak; its top may be broad and stately, like the chestnut, or drooping and elegant, like the elm, or delicate and airy like the birch, but it is sure to grow into the type form, either beautiful or picturesque, that nature stamped upon its species, and which is the highest beauty that such tree can possess. It is true that nature plants some trees, like the fir and pine, in the tissures of the rock and on the edge of the precipice; that she twists their boughs and gnarls their stems by storms and tempests thereby adding to their picturesque power in sublime and grand scenery; but as a general truth, it may be clearly stated that the beautiful in a tree of any kind is never so fully developed as when, in a genial soil and climate, it stands quite alone, stretching its boughs upward freely to the sky and outward to the breeze and even downward towards the earth, almost touching it with their graceful sweep, till only a glimpse of the fine trunk is had at its spreading base, and the whole top is one great globe of floating, waving, drooping, or sturdy luxuriance, giving one as perfect an idea of symmetry and proportion, as can be found short of the Grecian Apollo itself.
* Original dale of February, 1851.
Fig. 30. The Graceful Native Birches.
We have taken the pains to present this beau ideal of a fine ornamental tree to our readers in order to contrast it with another picture, not from nature, but by the hands of quite another master.
This master is the man whose passion is to prune trees. To his mind there is nothing comparable to the satisfaction of trimming a tree. A tree in a state of nature is a no more respectable object than an untamed savage. It is running to waste with leaves and branches and has none of the look of civilization about it. Only let him use his saw for a short time upon any young specimen just growing into adolescence and throwing out its delicate branches like a fine fall of drapery to conceal its naked trunk, and you shall see how he will improve its appearance. Yes, he will trim up those branches till there is a tall, naked stem, higher than his head. That shows that the tree has been taken care of has been trimmed ergo, trained and educated into a look of respectability. This is his great point the fundamental law of sylvan beauty in his mind a bare pole with a top of foliage at the end of it. If he cannot do this he may content himself with thinning out the branches to let in the light, or clipping them at the ends to send the head upwards, or cutting out the leader to make it spread laterally. But though the trees formed by these latter modes of pruning are well enough, they never reach that exalted standard which has for its type a pole as bare as a ship's mast with only a flying studding-sail of green boughs at the end of it.*
We suppose this very common pleasure for it must be a pleasure which so many persons find in trimming up ornamental trees is based on a feeling that trees growing quite in the natural way must be capable of some amelioration by art; and as pruning is usually acknowledged to be useful in developing certain points in a fruit tree, a like good purpose will be reached by the use of the knife upon an ornamental tree. But the comparison does not hold good, since the objects aimed at are essentially different. Pruning at least all useful pruning as applied to fruit trees, is applied for the purpose of adding to, diminishing, or otherwise regulating the fruitfulness of the tree; and this in many cases is effected at the acknowledged diminution of the growth, luxuriance and beauty of the trees, so far as spread of branches and prodigality of foliage go. But even here the pruner who prunes only for the sake of using the knife (like heartless young surgeons in hospitals) not unfrequently goes too far, injures the perfect maturity of the crop and hastens the decline of the tree by depriving it of the fair proportions which nature has established between the leaf and the fruit.
* Some of our readers may not be aware that to cut off the side branches on a young trunk, actually lessens the growth in diameter of that trunk at once. A. J. D.
But for the most part, we imagine that the practice we complain of is a want of perception of what is truly beautiful in an ornamental tree. It seems to us indisputable that no one who has any perception of the beautiful in nature could ever doubt for a moment that a fine single elm or oak such as we may find in the valley of the Connecticut or the Genesee, which has never been touched by the knife, is the most perfect standard of sylvan grace, symmetry, dignity, and finely balanced proportions that it is possible to conceive. One would no more wish to touch it with saw or axe (unless to remove some branch that has fallen into decay) than to give a nicer curve to the rainbow or add freshness to the dew-drop. If any of our readers who still stand by the pruning-knife will only give themselves up to the study of such trees as these trees that have the most completely developed forms that nature stamps upon the species they are certain to arrive at the same conclusions. For the beautiful in nature, though not alike visible to every man, never fails to dawn sooner or later upon all who seek her in the right spirit.
And in art too, no great master of landscape, no Claude, or Poussin, or Turner, paints mutilated trees, but trees of grand and majestic heads, full of health and majesty, or grandly stamped with the wild irregularity of nature in her sterner types. The few Dutch or French artists who are the exceptions to this, and have copied those emblems of pruned deformity the pollard trees that figure in the landscapes of the Low Countries have given local truthfulness to their landscapes at the expense of every thing like sylvan loveliness. A pollard willow should be the very type and model of beauty in the eye of the champion of the pruning saw. Its finest parallels in the art of mending nature's proportions for the sake of beauty are in the flat-tened heads of a certain tribe of Indians and the deformed feet of Chinese women. What nature has especially shaped for a delight to the eye and a fine suggestion to the spiritual sense as a beautiful tree, or the human form divine, man should not lightly undertake to remodel or clip of its fair proportions.