By J. Packard Laird ’42
Once upon a time, in the midst of a giant briar patch which extended as far as the eye could see, a tree sprang up. With the impudence of youth it dared to raise its head above the tangle of the briar patch, and as time passed, the tree prospered and grew tall. It sent forth new branches, and it added extra growth to old branches. Its leaves glittered in the sun, casting flickering shadows over the thorns and brambles of the briar patch below. Its blossoms gave off a rich fragrance, sweeping aside the smell of the rotting vegetation which had been crushed beneath the unending tangle of the briar patch.
This young tree said to itself, “Growing is a difficult and dangerous process. I had best improve myself and make myself into the best tree possible. I must control my growth, stimulating that which is desirable and cutting back that which is not.” So the tree sent out a shoot from its trunk and concentrated on that shoot all those abilities of judgment and powers of control which before had been spread in varying amounts throughout its branches, its trunk, and down into its very roots. This shoot the tree called “The Vine of Judgment,” and the tree allowed the vine to grow.
The vine of judgment wrought wonders for the tree. In order to assist the new young branches, it pinched back the buds which would otherwise have turned into flowers, lest such a blossoming rob the new branches of a portion of their vigor during their time for growth. This enabled each new branch to put its full effort into growth, and the new branches grew without knowing their purpose. The vine of judgment helped in other ways. It reasoned that new branches and certain sickly older branches needed extra vitality. The vine of judgment therefore wrapped itself around the stronger and more vigorous limbs so as to restrict their growth and force more of the life fluids to flow to the young branches and to the suffering limbs.
But the vine of judgment soon found itself in difficulty. The vigorous limbs were strong, healthy and difficult to encircle effectively, and invariable the new branches which formed out on the growing edge of the tree, where before there had been nothing, were beyond the helpful reach of the vine. How could it be otherwise? The strength of the vine came from the trunk of the tree and was insufficient to enable the vine to encircle the vigorous limbs and still reach out to the new twigs which it had to control. So the vine of judgment had no alternative but to grow suckers with which it could attach itself to each of the limbs and even to young branches, and through these suckers it drew nourishment in appropriate amounts from each and every limb. Now the vine of judgment was able to extend beyond the outermost reaches of the tree, ready in advance to help every new branch which might otherwise have to struggle in order to achieve maturity.
The vine of judgment prospered. It drew its strength now from each limb, branch, and twig; and the original shoot of the vine which came from the trunk, not from the roots, withered and fell off.
The tree prospered accordingly. Had you asked it, “Are you better off now than before?” tree would have answered in unison, “Yes.” For now all the new branches were covered by a small protective offshoot from the vine of judgment which made sure that the new branch could grow without distraction. As a new branch turned into a limb and became strong and vigorous, it was gently encircled by an appropriately enlarged portion of the vine of judgment. This insured against the limb’s growing too fast a rate, for this would endanger the welfare of the whole tree. If a limb became infected or for any reason lost its vigor, the vine of judgment gave it preferential treatment by gently increasing its pressure on that limb so as to regulate the flow of vital fluids and restore that limb to health.
This was truly a good arrangement for the tree as a whole. Each branch and limb contributed in proportion to its ability, each branch and limb received aid in proportion to its need, and the vine rendered impartial judgment as to which was which.
The vine of judgment, realizing that its role was vital to the welfare of the tree, covered itself with sharp thorns lest it be destroyed by some outside enemy or perhaps challenged in its wisdom and authority by some impertinent tree limb. The thorns provided extra service to each separate part of the tree. They protected each vine-enwrapped tree limb from each other limb, for, when the wind blows, as occasionally it will, branches may rub on each other. In this manner the limbs of the tree became separated by thorns.
The vine of judgment next turned its attention to the root structure, which, though unseen and uncharted, supplied all nourishment to the tree. By girdling the roots of the tree, the vine of judgment reasoned it would be able to improve the very source from which all parts of the tree derived their strength and their being. In addition, the vine of judgment would derive additional nourishment by attaching its suckers directly to the roots from which all strength emanates.
So the vine of judgement sent shoots down into the ground to search out and help the root structure of the tree. These shoots quickly spread beneath the ground, popping up above the surface from time to time in order to reach with a quick upward thrust some overhanging tree branch which had somehow managed to avoid the helpful assistance of the vine of judgment. And each such new shoot from the vine had its own name and, like the rest of the vine of judgment, did everything in its power to help the tree.
In this manner the tree prospered until it died. Its passing was unimpressive. At no time was it without leaves, or so it seemed. The leaves on the vine of judgment took the place of the leaves which failed to grow on each dead limb. A long time passed after the tree stopped flowering before the stink of decaying hardwood might have warned a passer-by that here was a dead king, not yet toppled from his throne.
Now there is no fragrance in the air, just the unending stink of the rot deep down. There are no shadows, cast by more lofty forms, to play upon the briar patch and show by their mere existence the defensive inferiority of barbs and thorns. The tree is gone, the vine lives on, and the briar patch still extends as far as the eye can see.
From a June 19, 1978 letter to Ronald Reagan from Mr. Laird:
Dear Mr. Reagan,
The enclosed copy of “The Tree That Pruned Itself” tells allegorically the tale of a growing entity (the USA?) trying to improve itself via counterproductive procedures. The predictable consequence is that the entity suffers increasingly from a bad case of Cure. The final outcome is unperceived death.
About the author:
J. Packard Laird graduated from Princeton in 1942, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He joined the Navy in WW II, where he was recruited to work on the Norden bombsight, a breakthrough technology. He then had a long career with the DuPont company in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. Mr. Laird was an early advocate and pioneer in analog computer applications and program learning. Throughout his DuPont career, he was acknowledged for novel solutions to engineering and related industry challenges. He married Frances Swan of Bronxville, NY, and they had three children, one of whom, Frances Laird Johnson, graduated from Princeton in 1980, with a BS Chemical Engineering. Following his retirement from DuPont, Mr. Laird was Registrar of Wilmington College (now Wilmington University), where he created and taught a course titled Meditation and Creative Thought. He retired to Santa Fe, where he died in March, 2003, at age 82. Prior to writing his allegory, The Tree That Pruned Itself in 1963, Mr. Laird wrote The Consumption Tax Plan (48 pages) in 1953, which was updated (10 pages) in 1995.
This allegory is published with the permission of Mr. Laird’s heirs; any questions or comments can be directed to them at firstname.lastname@example.org“