Working in the sacred : The conversation

A working landscape is an ideal classroom for life’s lessons about the world. It is an “open” classroom that encourages discussion. If I don’t join the conversation, I don’t learn much.

I may start the conversation by pruning. “What happens if I cut here? Snip?”

In the span of months, I get a response with the regrowth of leaf, stem and even flower, completely in reaction to how I have pruned. Deep pruning gives rise to a strong regrowth, light pruning, a light regrowth. Depending on the season, severe pruning may set the plant back or cause it to sprout with a certain wild abandon in response. The ongoing conversation becomes a relationship, as I pay attention and respond to the plant’s answers. I get to know the plant and learn the lessons it has to offer.

When I started to learn pruning, it was quite apparent that I was embarking on an adventure. I had no idea it would be a conversation. Up till now, I had only read about pruning. I had seen the diagrams of idealized trees and bushes, in their ‘before’ and ‘after’ modes. But, as ‘Apple Orchard Management’ was one of the themes of my master’s degree thesis, I knew I had to eventually get my hands on a real orchard and get to work.

Heinz Grotzke, whose diverse orchard row I was to prune, set his ladder firmly against the first tree, said “Look”, and began clipping away in a studied, slow blaze of well-placed intentionality. After fifteen minutes, when the ground lay strewn with twigs and branches, he indicated that the rest of the row was up to me. As he was leaving, he held out both his hands wide, gesturing toward the apple tree like an MC turning the stage over to the main speaker, and simply said; “This is what it looks like.” I had done my best to focus on where he had made his cuts, but I was considerably bewildered as I launched out on my own.

Now, this next tree was a peach tree. I realized immediately, that I was completely over my depth as I tried anxiously to find any similarity that might suggest a cut here or there. After about half an hour of intense looking, and clipping twigs of approximately the same size as he had, I went on to the next tree, which was, to my relief, an apple.

The anxiety of having to prune my boss’s unfamiliar peach, had awakened in me a keen, open-eyed apprehension of form. I had unsuccessfully sought for any similarities in the peach, that would have given me a clue as to where to make the cuts. When I saw the next tree, a glow of recognition lit up in me and I breathed a sigh of relief. Another apple! I had grown up surrounded by apple orchards in Massachusetts, and had spent hundreds of hours playing, in all seasons, in and around full-sized trees. This was a dwarf by comparison, but, at the hands-on scale of the pruner, its twig and branch pattern I knew by heart. Now, it was just a matter of copying Heinz’s cuts. Right?

But was it? The tree he had pruned, stood out at the end of the row, trim and regular, with evenly-spaced twigs and just the ‘right’ amount and length of growth. It had four main branches that spread wide from the trunk. This one here, had a central leader giving rise to many smaller horizontal branches that filled the space of the tree. I stepped back off my ladder many times to look at his tree and re-establish the image of his example in my mind as I pruned. By the time I reached the end of the row, the last few apples trees were beginning to have the same look as Heinz’s shining example. I walked up and down the whole row, clipping a stray twig here or branch there, until they all looked ‘right’. I expected to hear the next day, from Heinz, how I had done; whether they “looked like… it“; like the tree he had pruned; like the nebulous ‘Apple-tree’ he saw in his mind’s eye and I was beginning to see in mine. I guess I was really on my own figuring out the ‘Peach’. Heinz never said another thing at the time. I understood that to mean that he had given me enough to chew on for the time being. It might be a while before I was ready for the next lesson. I realize now, that he had just got me oriented, and had let the trees do the teaching.

The next spring, the apples presented me with almost the same unkempt form they had the previous year; ready to be pruned. I started out to do the pruning them with considerably more confidence. The peaches, on the other hand, were a mess. At the end of each long stick that I had only tipped the previous year, had sprung a witch’s broom of suckers that had bowed down the long, thin sticks on which they grew, with their combined weight. Some that I had cut back more severely, had produced fewer, stronger side branches. They reminded me of the unpruned form that had presented itself to my anxious eyes the previous year. It was immediately clear that these more severe cuts had been more successful, and would encourage the tree to grow a more sustainable form. I cut off all the deformed growth and set all of the old sticks back a foot or more.

The following year, Heinz finally put his stamp of approval on my work. “You’re learning” was all he said. I was met, that year, with a row of apples and peaches that gave me the impression of the original I had encountered three years earlier, except that the trees had now grown noticeably larger. By now, both ‘Apple’ and ‘Peach’ had etched themselves in my mind. I knew them both by heart. That ‘knowing’ felt more like an impulse to help each of the individual trees grow to proclaim their species’ perfection.

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