Building things is an exquisite joy. There is something timeless about nails, but I prefer to bring two elements together with screws. It was a hot late summer afternoon in an unnaturally cool basement wood-shop on the University of Montana campus where the remarkable and dauntless Professor Bonjorni instructed a dozen green as hell painting students – of which I was one – in the art of creating a sturdy canvas. “Nails,” she said, “attach. Screws join.” I’ve never forgotten this lesson. Over the course of my life I will likely have spent several thousand dollars paying for screws where nails could have been sufficient. I will regret none of those dollars spent. But building things is a pleasure of the earth and soil, muscle and toil. Creating form by attaching two lengths of wood together is the province of the kingdom of humans.
Pruning fruit trees requires wading at the shores of heaven. Go outside. Build a fire. Look up into the sky at the thousand, thousand points of light. Name the shapes you see. Now you are ready to prune a fruit tree.
Symmetry demands that fruit trees be pruned after the worst of winter but before the sap runs. Now is that time. I have the extreme pleasure of pruning my own fruit trees, those at my parents home, and with extreme gratitude, I have been pruning fruit trees as part of my work. There’s almost no work I’d rather perform.
In my back yard I am blessed with two magnificent cherry trees. They rise majestically from the side of my short hill. I bought this house in June of 2020, and so there was nothing to be done other than watch their overgrown visages bear what fruit they could. I dutifully mulched their base. I watered them. We ate a few bowls of cherries. The ravens got most of the fruit.
A tree, like my cherries, that hasn’t been pruned in many years will sag under the weight of its own growth. The path forward will be long and have many turns. This is the first of the magical aspects of pruning fruit trees. You can’t always accomplish everything in one season. If you cut all the things that need to be cut, the tree will be stressed. Stressed trees are susceptible to disease and rot. To begin the long road to health, the first necessary step is to realize that the road will be long. Plan for a future after that first pruning which includes the warmth of summer, the cold of winter, a spring of another judicious pruning, another summer, another winter, and then, maybe in the third spring before the sap runs again, maybe the tree will be in a shape that can persist with only yearly general maintenance.
Begin with the shape. Trees want to grow up. They reach for the warmth of their patron, the sun. Bearing healthy, rich fruit means growing outward – horizontal to the ground they are rooted in. The second lesson of pruning fruit trees is that one is not taking away branches, one is guiding energy. The fruit tree has only so much energy to give over the course of a warm season, and so that energy must be shepherded carefully, and with intention. Take away branches that will shade nearby neighbors. Take away branches that grow with too much enthusiasm toward the stars. Take away branches that would cross and crowd their brothers and sisters. Take away branches that duplicate the effort of others. Remove broken branches – they are vectors for pathogens. Encourage strength – the strongest branches will support the most fruit. Don’t think about what branches are good and which are bad. Decide where the energy should go, and act accordingly.
The third lesson of pruning fruit trees is that one must not think of wood and bark how they are now. A projection must be made of each branch and bud – into the future, sure, but it’s better to project the path of growth. How will this bud grow? What branch will it turn into? Is its path one of harmony or burden? Will action or inaction be the most helpful? It is an exercise in having faith. Trusting oneself. Be willing to risk mistakes. Make mistakes. The tree will tell you when you’ve fucked up. It’s okay to fuck up.
This is lesson four. It’s okay to fuck up. There is no perfectly pruned fruit tree. There cannot be. Heaven’s landscape is crowded with imperfections. We are all subject to the whims of chaos. This isn’t hyperbole. Chaos is the natural result of natural systems. It’s why we cannot predict the weather more than a few days out. It’s why in one moment the cloud looks like a dinosaur. In the next, it looks like a lighthouse. Apologies to twentieth century Modernists, but you cannot, you simply cannot, capture or reflect anything permanent and true. There is only change and chaos. Fruit trees teach us this. The beauty is that there isn’t a right path. There are only paths. If you ask ten skilled arborists to prune the same tree it would look completely different in each iteration. And they would likely all be sufficient or even good. There is a deep and enormous well of grace lurking there. Choices are made with right intention. Outcomes are accepted and looked on over the course of time with discrimination and choices will be made again with right intention. Wash, rinse, repeat. The harmony is not in the outcome. There is no perfectly pruned fruit tree.
Harmony is found in the repeated iteration of discernment and action.
An angry platoon of masters theses could arise from this comment as it relates to contemporary Western culture, but I am too old and too tired to beat that drum. There are too many private battles to be fought and personal victories to be reached for. Go outside. Make a fire. Sharpen clippers. Find a pair of old leather gloves. Requisition a ladder. Ask the tree what it needs – where its energy should be directed. Look up. Stare into the heavens and name the shapes made by the thousand, thousand points of light.