Don't top that tree!

 

One day several years ago, when the youngest was 5 and her sister 8, the youngest brought home from kindergarten a watercolor she had painted of a tree. Painted on 9-by-18-inch paper, the tree's shallow crown stretched the 18-inch width of the paper and off both edges. My wife and I of course praised the painting and privately dubbed it the "mustache tree," but Amanda's older-and-wiser sister knew better.

"That's not how a tree should look," she said. "Here. I'll show you."

And produced in a matter of seconds the predictable stick with its neat spherical crown perfectly balanced on top.

Elder sister had "learned" that trees should look like green balloons.

I think of that little incident each spring as I drive around marveling at the idiocy of people who have hired tree "services" to have the trees in their yards "topped." Wherever you live in the West, you know what I'm talking about: the reduction of perfectly good trees to ugly, albeit spherical, stumps-with-bristles.

No one seems to know for sure how this practice started. Some say power lines, but others more plausibly point to an old European practice now largely abandoned called pollarding, which was a similar but benign procedure whose original purpose was to provide people — on a largely deforested continent — with a reliable source of firewood. Tree-topping, then, is pollarding made easy, pollarding dumbed down, pollarding (why not say it?) American-style.

There are dozens of Web sites on the Internet about tree-topping, and they all say the same thing: Don't do it. Besides the fact that it doesn't work (those blasted trees just grow back), topping starves the tree, which reduces and weakens the roots, which doesn't increase the odds of the tree staying vertical. A topped tree is forced into a survival mode. Most of the viable buds that would have produced viable limbs have been removed, so the tree must now rely on its latent buds, which produce weak, poorly anchored watersprouts that look as if the tree's hair is standing on end.

Meanwhile, what stored reserves are left in what is left of the limbs are feeding this frenzied process (watersprouts can grow 20 feet in a year) while at the same time trying to keep what roots are left functioning. This means that all the tree's energy is being channeled into just staying alive "normally," which means little or nothing left to fight insects and disease, which spells rot. Add sunscald to those parts of the tree not previously exposed to sun, and it's easy to see why arborists cry with one voice, Don't do it.

But people do. So why?

In my search for an answer, I found an article in the July 1999 issue of the Journal of Arboriculture that addresses the question: "Underlying Beliefs and Attitudes About Topping Trees" by James Fazio and Edwin Krumpe. Their study confirmed what you probably already know, that people top their trees out of fear: fear that the tree is somehow getting "too big," and fear that this great big wild thing will fall over and squash their happy homes. Colossal ignorance, the authors found, is also a factor, and they conclude their article with a call for more education.

But if, as they note, "a plethora of printed literature about topping" is already available to the public; if, as I discovered, a plethora of similar information is available on the Internet; and if, as seems reasonable, common sense alone should be enough to tell anyone that a tree should just be allowed to be a tree; then — to repeat — why?

Fazio and Krumpe are undoubtedly correct when they cite fear as the principal reason, but I think the fear that drives people to top their trees runs deeper than just concern for private property. Fear of the wild, fear of nature, and the desire to control it, are apparently elemental in the human psyche, and in America took the form of conquering the wilderness.

There was nothing beautiful about the great eastern forests, for example, to the colonists: they were just a barrier to expansion and a threat comprised of countless unknowns. The wild had to be tamed, and the effort to tame continued for two centuries ever-westward. So it continues, of course, to this day.

Michael O'Rourke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and transplanted Coloradan now living in Tennessee.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.