Snip Snip

Pruning trees – the activity, the judgement required, the variables – is a metaphor for deciding where to put my own life energies: which branches to keep, and which will never amount to anything.


This one will never come to anything.

Snip snip. A long, skinny twig growing sideways off a major branch is gone. The professional gardener is explaining as he goes — a favour to me, since I mentioned an interest in becoming a better pruner.

This one is crossed.

Snip snip. This time, his clippers move too quickly for me to see the habit of growth to which he’s objecting — to see the branches that were crossing over each other. Nor do I quite get how he has chosen one branch over the other.

And this one is growing inward.

Snip snip. I squint at the tree sideways. Now I’m confused. Wasn’t there also something about not leaving holes? If all the branches growing inward are removed, won’t that leave holes everywhere?

But when he steps back from the magnolia tree, declaring that he’s done — and that to do any more at this time of year might stress the tree — the net effect is good. And within less time than seems reasonable, he transforms the adjacent Japanese lilac tree from an interlocking rat’s nest of new, old, and dead growth to something that looks very like a carefully tended tree. The guy is a miracle worker.

Yet when he moves on to the service berry tree, he clucks unhappily. Its division into three main but spindly branches is neither structurally sound nor easily repairable. Each major branch is too small to withstand high winds, yet too big to be pruned away now. He cuts selectively, aiming only to increase its bushiness.

This, I’m thinking, is not something I can learn by watching. There are just too many variables: the species of tree, the age and condition of the specific specimen, the space and light available in its location, the season. There’s just too much judgement required, to know what can be accomplished and what cannot; to allow for whether the flowers grow on new wood or on old. And going beyond watching — practicing by laying clippers on the only trees to hand — is clearly a bad idea.

This one will never come to anything.

The next day, I smile as my subconscious connects the dots for me. As the gardener pruned my trees, so, too, did he unintentionally prune my ambitions. My long-held-but-never-acted-on wish to become a better pruner — my own long, skinny twig — has been neatly excised from the main branch.

It gets me to thinking about what other ambitions I’ve pruned, over the years, even if only implicitly. Playing a musical instrument. Writing children’s books. Writing poetry. Learning French. Working in international development. Learning cross-stitch. Living in another country. Did I abandon something too quickly, I wonder?

It gets me to thinking, too, about the ambitions still on tap. Speaking Spanish well. Learning to draw. Using a real camera properly. Learning to knit. Getting fit. Writing a novel. Becoming a birder. Am I chasing too much, I wonder?

In life as in trees, pruning mistakes are ugly. Over-pruning creates gaping holes or a stark trunk devoid of side branches altogether. Under-pruning fosters tiny, inward-growing, criss-crossing branches that break whenever the wind comes up. And the wind does come up.

Worse, we’ve only got the one life in which to learn how to account for our own variables: Are we naturally branchers or straight growers? Are we already committed to some old growth? What season of our life are we at? Is there ample or limited space and light in our current location?

Life as a well-pruned tree won’t be the right metaphor for everyone. But for me — an indiscriminate accumulator of more ambitions than the time allows — maybe it will help.

Maybe it will help me remember that good, timely pruning is as important as growing; that it actually helps the growing.

Maybe it will help me keep my life from becoming a rat’s nest of barely started, half-finished, and de facto abandoned projects, building instead a sufficiently diverse structure that will also withstand the inevitable high winds.

And so I have a new question to challenge where I put my time, money, physical energy, and mental focus.

Will this one ever come to anything? No?

Snip snip.

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14 Responses to Snip Snip

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    As a born introvert, I see nothing wrong with inward-growing branches!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Certainly, people without any inner lives are a bit trying (although I can envy them their apparent peace). On the other hand, fairly or not, I attribute many organizational dysfunctions to a preoccupation with inward-facing matters, rather than those that connect them to their “markets” (in the sense of those they exist to serve), and wonder whether that also applies to people. I don’t suppose we’re meant to live at either extreme. Maybe moderation in all things, eh?

      • Jim Taylor says:

        Interesting analogy — to see the tree/shrub as an organization rather than an individual. But I think you’re right — too many inward-turning branches render organizations irrelevant, perhaps even dangerous. The first time I had to attend the United Church’s General Council, I read all the documents and papers before hand, and my comment was “Mainly housekeeping.” I’m not sure what else I expected (the church was no longer any kind of authority on national issues) but I did feel that we should be looking outward, rather than inward.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Jim – I guess there’s an argument to be made that we are not individuals, exactly, but a mix of beings (My name is legion?). If that’s the case, the analogy gains some force! My experience with inwardly focused organizations that should be outwardly focused includes (some) universities and (some) churches. Not that they don’t need an interior life, but there has to be an outlet. Somewhere.

  2. Alison says:

    I like this analogy! At a time in my life when I’m realizing I will NOT accomplish all I thought I would, it’s good to have a strategy. I have far too many interests, and not enough time or skill to do them all. I am “chief pruner” for our tree business though, and it’s something that I find I really enjoy. I prune in the winter, and find you can see the shape of the tree far easier at that time.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Yeah, the gardener was not entirely happy about being called in when the foliage was near its peak. He prefers to prune in the spring – late enough that he can identify winter kill, I guess, but early enough that he can see into the mess of branches – seeing the “shape of the tree,” as you say, as he cuts branches away. Of course, our lives don’t have the same neat rhythm as the seasons. We talk about the autumn of our lives, but without any expectation that we can go round more than once! So – autumn or not – I guess I have to prune now, like it or not.

  3. Sid & Lorraine says:


    Having just finished a lot of pruning for my neighbor and myself I appreciated your writing but I needed the advice last week!
    What do you mean that once again I missed the point!


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Sid – I think that’s usually the way with advice, isn’t it? A day late and a dollar short? I, for example, know exactly what I ought to have done yesterday, but tomorrow is another matter altogether.

  4. This has reminded me to check my posture even MORE regularly! As the trunk is bent, so grows the tree… One again, Isabel, you make me think and not just about posture!

    Remember that movie? — City Slickers — and the three novice city cowpokes keep bugging the old cowhand who claims to know the secret of life. Finally, after weeks on the trail, he relents and raises a finger, says, “One thing. Do one thing — decide what it is your life’s top priority — and all the rest will fall into place.”

    There is also that great song, “…make just one person happy, and you will be happy, too.”

    We are trying to drink at life (and all its many options) like it’s a hydrant and we waste life as it flows all around us; we can’t taste the water for it is crashing into us. Sip One Thing — A Glass of Fresh Cool Water — and all of life will be a miracle.

    Simply attend.
    Here endeth the lesson of Not Being So Friggin’ Busy All the Time. 😀

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Interesting. Many of my favourite quotes are from that movie (I like, in response to “Have you killed anyone today, Curly?” the reply, “No, but the day ain’t over yet.” – also, “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”) But yes, the “one thing” idea is powerful. Restrictive, too, and (IMHO) too restrictive. Mind you, I’m not a world changer – maybe those who are actually do pick One Thing. As for good posture, the spindly service berry tree leans just a bit. A friend suggested lashing it to the fence with pantyhose to improve its posture, as it were. I can just see you, lashed to John with pantyhose . . .

      • Yeah — John has much better posture, having been a dancer — and percussionist — in a previous incarnation… (just when you think you know him, eh?)

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Good grief. The untold stories there must be! No, I’d never have pegged him as a dancer.

  5. As I read your list of abandoned projects, almost identical to many of mine, I wonder if people’s similarities are as clearly reflected in their pruning as in the directions they choose to grow?

    Having stumbled upon One Thing that could have extensive impact, my sense of responsibility to that Thing certainly has a pruning effect. No doubt it produces a peculiar shape — as the painting I made early in our marriage was of a tree bent with the burden of its peculiar fruit. Perhaps if you think less of the Renaissance extravaganza (my personal preference, if given a choice) and more of the bonsai you would better appreciate extremes of pruning.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – An interesting point. I tend to count the similarities I can see – a shared interest in photography, a shared enjoyment of kayaking – and not even think about the shared “discards.” But I bet they also provide a common ground on which to “meet” people, as it were. One of the degrees, not of separation, but of connection. (Think of the clubs that could form: People Who gave Up On The Violin. And so on.) And I like your pushing out of the extremes of pruning, contrasting bonsai with the Renaissance. (Have I written in this space about Redneck Rab and his concept of keeping one’s bead on the wire? After a few years of weekly topics, I find I forget.). One Thing may bear wonderful fruit, indeed, and need not be stigmatized (if stigma it is) of being “extreme.”

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