The tree says:
Years of broken branches
at your back, cut into the harvest,
knowing that even sweet juice
grows too heavy to carry.
The clipped ones ping
against the ladder steps.
Green marbles, red
My hand aches, wielding
the shears. Woodpeckers chatter,
circling the trunk of a plum.
Cluster after cluster, cut down to one.
This is your way too, this abundance
that requires trimming.
Let me teach you with my body
how much can be borne.
I wrote that poem last June during apple thinning time and I’ve been thinking about it this week as I’ve been up in the apples again, pruning out branches. Both pruning and thinning used to be emotionally difficult tasks: I was worried about cutting the wrong limbs, about taking off too much fruit. Years of watching the branches grow spindly and tangled, bending, sometimes breaking under the weight of fruit clusters crowding under the darkness of too many leaves cured me of my reluctance. Now, these are simply physically difficult tasks, though a certain type of feeling work is still involved.
In “The Holistic Orchard,” Michael Phillips writes, “Pruning a tree properly (or a bramble or a fruiting branch) requires empathy. You project your mind into the buds before you and feel how additional sunshine and room to breathe will allow a chosen branch to become fruitful . . . Feel the warmth of the sun. Stretch out into this newly freed space. Be the bud. Understanding how to prune correctly involves consciously crossing the line between species and feeling what it’s like to embrace photosynthesis.”
And so I go into the orchard with my pruning tools: nippers, loppers, folding pocket saw, branch saw. I choose my tree; I say hello; I ask what I can do to help it be strong and fruitful. I walk around the tree and feel into the answer, imagining the now-bare branches full of leaves and fruit. I read the tree’s history in the shape of its body: multiple trunks reveal neglect in formative years, circular pruning scars show where large branches were removed, stubs across the top of a branch indicate over-pruning ignited upright growth that was eventually cut back, and here, finally, fruit buds stud a limb that was allowed light and air and space. What story will this tree and I write together in the coming years? I look for places where a few cuts will open up the room we need in order to work together fruitfully. Sometimes this means removing a branch because it will allow me ladder access to the interior of the tree to thin the fruit clusters in June and to harvest in September. It used to be hard for me to make these cuts: it felt selfish to remove limbs for my convenience. Now, I realize that if I am to be an effective partner to the trees, I must meet my own needs in this partnership as well.
Why is this such a hard lesson, in the orchard and in life? It’s common sense that to be effective in my work, I need the same spaciousness the trees need; otherwise my life becomes tangled with tasks that I don’t have the energy to bring to fruition and the weight of too much responsibility leaves my body vulnerable to breakages of all kinds. I know these things. And yet despite good intentions, again and again I find my to-do list spilling into the margins of the day, taking up the time I need for sleep, for food, for relationships, for art and music, for solitude and deep dreaming. When my body and my mind are overburdened, I become reactive, my days governed by the next impending deadline instead of the joyful direction of my heart.
And so, this Spring I am walking into the orchard of my life with a different set of pruning tools. Eight years ago Harvest of Joy Farm started out with just six CSA memberships and I began work at Kalamazoo College in my role of Writing Center Director. Since then, both the farm and my responsibilities at the college have grown in wonderful ways. I am blessed that my days are filled with work that I love and people I love to work with. And I feel especially blessed by the ways that my work as a teacher and my work as a farmer have intertwined as I’ve had opportunities to host students on the farm and to invite them to forge deeper relationships with the land and the people who produce their food.
During the coming year, a group of my colleagues at the college will be drafting a proposal for a program to offer students additional opportunities to study food and farming systems through a lens of sovereignty and social justice. I’m excited to have been asked to be a part of this project, which will include academic courses and hands-on experiences working in our local community and abroad. The conversations I’ve had with students as we’ve crouched over the garden beds transplanting cabbages or thinning carrots have helped me understand how deeply disconnected most people are from the sources of their food and how little agency many have over their food choices. I hope that this program will not only help students understand our food system better, but will also build capacity for more people to grow their own food and/or to access more food that is grown locally.
I don’t yet know how much time and energy my involvement with this program is going to require and at the end of the day, too much fulfilling work is still too much work. So we are suspending our CSA for the coming year in order to make sure that the branches of my life don’t get overloaded to the breaking point. And we are also going to use this year to explore possibilities for shifting our business focus to supporting local gardeners through offering seeds, plants, and gardening classes. It’s possible that we will resume our CSA in 2020. We are also considering opening a farm stand that offers transplants and in-demand seasonal crops instead. This coming season, when we have excess produce or plants available for sale, we will simply post a notice on this blog and on our Facebook page and folks can contact us directly if they’d like to buy some.
Michael Phillips has described pruning as a type of “time travel.” In his DVD series “Holistic Orcharding,” he demonstrates thinking across the years of a tree’s life. “I’m standing here this year,” he says, “but I’m also standing here next year. I’m also standing here two, three, four years from now because I’m thinking about how the tree is going to grow, how that progression of fruiting, weighing down of the branch, a new shoot coming in and filling that space takes place . . . I as a pruner have to be thinking about what’s going on not only this year but in the years to come.” This growing season, we’ll be doing the same as we think about how to prune and shape our business so that in years to come, our lives can bear more delicious fruit in the forms of healthy food, healthy ecosystems, and healthy community relationships.
Apple tree, before and after pruning: