Sunday, February 17, 2013

People pruning

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  John 15:1-2

The unruly, very old and abandoned apple tree in a neighbor's pasture.  I have chopped branches, but never pruned it.  It always produces apples in profusion, but they are very scabby.  I wonder if proper care could improve the apples.

I grew up in a second floor condominium in Hawaii, and so therefore had no first hand experience with pruning.  I knew that the gardeners came around every few years and cut back the big shower trees so that they wouldn't overtake the parking lot and our porches.  What I did not understand was the very careful way that cultivated trees must be cared for in order to foster good health, growth and abundance, whether in fruit or beauty.

Two years ago, my parents in law gave us many fruit trees so that we might start a small orchard.  I had been growing a vegetable garden for about 12 years, but had never grown any kind of fruit.  We live in the maritime Pacific Northwest on five acres, so we have room for this.  We planted the trees in 2 straight lines, facing north to south, maybe fertilizing, and left it at that.  There was no fruit that summer except for maybe a cherry or three.

I decided last year that I needed to learn to prune.  I asked friends for resources and watched lots of youtube videos, since I learn best by watching someone else do what I'd like to try.  I learned about central leader style pruning, in which there is one center growth area with branches coming off of it.  This is used mainly for apples, pears and cherries.  Peach and plum trees must be pruned in the shape of a vase.  This was fine, and I did what it asked, but still I did not get much fruit.  In fact, we had just one peach on our peach tree, which I kept forgetting to share with the family, but finally did.

This year, I took a class from a professional pruner and learned even more about my trees, and how I could help them to produce.  More importantly, I began to understand why the pruning and cultivation of fruit trees is likened to character and spiritual growth of people.  I had always understood it to be a sort of cliche that was old fashioned, that a person is being pruned (ouch!) when undergoing a hardship, but that hey, in the end, it's good for you and you'll do better.  But how it worked is what I still had not grasped.

The day after my class, I was sitting in church and the pastor had made reference to a scripture likening people to cultivated fruit trees.  I can't find that passage, but something came through very clearly to me:  we as humans are not meant to be wild trees, like an alder or cottonwood, all created to do exactly like every other tree in their species.  Every alder fixes nitrogen in the ground and changes its pH, providing good habitat for longer lived plants that may follow it.  Each cottonwood becomes a habitat and helps to prevent erosion near streams.  When it falls, its branches and wood become new soil.

A cultivated tree is different.  It is a tree that has not grown easily, but instead has been transplanted to where it is desired to fulfill a specific purpose.  In the case of fruit trees, it is grafted with good scions onto a hardy and well developed rootstocks so that it will produce the kind of fruit the gardener desires.  The ground must be prepared carefully for a cultivated tree: a large roomy hole dug in a well drained place, good compost put in with the roots and then filled just below the graft point.  

We, as people, are each created with unique talents and gifts we can bring to the world we inhabit.  Our formative years, like the hardy rootstock my apple tree is grafted to, create a strong foundation for our abilities to build upon.  Like the tree whose roots sit in boggy, rocky, and dense ground, choked by weeds, a person who has not had emotional or spiritual nurturing as they grow might feel hindered and unable to thrive.  Like the tree whose shoots can be removed and grafted onto healthy rootstock, there is always hope for a person with this background.  They can be connected with a person or community that can be a nurturing and nondestructive force.  In my life, I have seen many lives changed when people with a painful past become connected with positive influences, and most especially, I have seen redemption when people are grafted into Christ and His healing.

Before my pruning class, I did not know that the grafting bump must be kept above the soil, or it will continue to want to grow into its own little tree, draining energy from the tree grafted into it.  In the same way, we as people need to be free to move on from the people and places who have mentored us, and so that we do not always ask them to decide for us, draining the life from our choices and actions.  Instead, our experiences and mentors are meant to bolster and support us, just as a good healthy rootstock does.  We are always grafted into them and draw much strength from them, but they do not fully define us.

As we grow, like the grafted fruit tree, we begin to develop into the kind of mature person who can contribute to the world around us.  My teacher said that a healthy tree will grow 18 inches a year.  If it grows too much, the soil is too rich and should not be amended.  The plant will put too much energy into growth instead of setting fruit.  The plant's growth should be throttled by heading of the central leader branch each year.  I remember when I was new to homeschooling my children.  I was so eager to take advantage of all the resources available to us that I burnt the children out running from one activity to another.  It has become a discipline over the years for me to pare down our family experiences to the most meaningful, and as a result, growth has been more positive and we have become more relaxed.

 If it a tree grows too little in a year, something is lacking or hindering growth.  A gardener will cut back grass and shoots, checks to see the root stock is above the ground, will check soil pH to see if lime should be added.  The gardener will also do annual pruning, being sure that air and light can get to each branch.  He is sure to remove weak water sprouts shooting up from main branches.  He uses heading cuts where he would like to see the tree branch out a little.  He uses thinning cuts so that energy is shunted to just a few main branches.   When I think of the word shunt, I remember my friend's sister, who had hydrocephalus.  The extra fluid that accumulated on her brain was removed through a shunt.  When a tree is pruned in order to shunt growth, it is directing all that extra energy where it should be.  My teacher likend a tree to a river...however a river would naturally flow is how a tree should grow.  It flows strong through main channels and doesn't turn awkward or sharp corners.

Like the concerned gardener, we should check our lives regularly to see that what we are doing is productive or if we are being hindered by certain things.  I think God, the greatest of Gardeners, does this for us regularly as well, if we take the time to notice.  He can help us to recognize the areas in our lives that need change.  I have found many activities that I have perceived as important to me may have actually been detrimental to my family life.  When I was suddenly unable to run due to a running injury, then damage from cortisone injections, I was forced to look at running, and what it actually was to me.  To me, it was something I was good at, and I had been pouring more and more time into it. This running activity is like the weak watersprouts on the tree...it was somewhat beneficial, but mainly brought weakness into my life by taking time away from my family.

I found new joy in photography and writing when I could no longer run, and poured much energy into blogging and sharing the joy I found in the world in this way.  This actually became beneficial to my family because as I consider the world through my writing and photography, I am able to better explain and share what I discover with my family.  It too, however, can become like the choking grasses and suck my time away.  When I take on too many photography jobs or spend too many evenings managing my blogs on social media, my family withers and my house falls apart.  This is a thinning cut I must constantly be making.  I must constantly reevaluate my dedication to these things to see that they do not become like little branches crisscrossing wildly throughout a tree, hindering production.  I am at this place, even tonight, as I stay up far too late typing out the ideas that have been swimming in my mind.

There is a great part of pruning and cultivating trees that I do not understand.  Professionals and more experienced gardeners have a better handle on this realm.  I liken this to the happenings in my life that cannot be made sense of.  I am sure that, like the time and energy draining things, you too have these sorts of cuts that are being made into you that cannot be understood.  It is then that we must trust that there is a Master Pruner who knows better than we do and is guiding our growth, even if the cuts are unintended, or a result of external injury or uncontrollable circumstances.

Over the past month, I have had 6 skin lesions cut and tested, biopsied and removed.  And I have been told that 2 of them are basal cell carcinoma, a sort of skin cancer that does not danger your life, but must be taken care of to prevent further damage to the surrounding tissue.  I have been told that 3 spots I have are irregular, that must be removed, and are markers for people susceptible to melanoma, which is a very dangerous sort of skin cancer.  I have been told that from now on, any bump I have must be carefully examined and regarded as potentially dangerous, and have been told that I am rather young to be having these kinds of things.  These lesions, like disease on a fruit tree, must be something that is constantly watched and removed when found to be hazardous.  

I cannot understand why, at 34, I should already be so concerned with matters linked closely to damage from age and to my own mortality, but I know that the master Gardener can use even this.  There is the basal cell cancer on my eyelid, and I'm afraid my eye will be damaged as the doctors carve it out, so that I cannot properly use my camera.  I realize this is irrational worry, but it is there.  I'm worried that my already plain appearance will be marred by scars on my eye and back, or even worse, that I my scars will distract people from just seeing me.  

Whatever happens, I know even then that my growth will continue to be guided so that my life will produce good fruit.  I think now I am learning trust, even as I am pruned most literally.  What sorts of pruning and maintenance are being done in the tree of your life?  How can you be an apprentice gardener in the cultivation of that tree?  It is beautiful to be aware of these things in our lives, because doing so guides us in fruitful growing.