The Apple Tree

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I’m shocked to see the apple tree, in spite of everything, put out some blooms this year. I had figured it for dead.

We bought the tree with the house, and got somewhere around six apples the fall after we moved in. Last year, we got none.

The tree, which struggles for room against the fence in the back corner of our lot, had been sadly neglected. You let an apple tree run wild, and it will send all its branches into the air at once. They will compete amongst themselves for available space, and grow every-which-way: downturned, crossed over, tucked under, in U-bends.

All those branches put out their leaves, which exist to absorb sunlight and transform it into energy, and this energy is needed for the purpose of producing fruit. Without a good pruning, the branches crowd one another out, cross over and cast shadows, and the light can’t get in. Less light, less fruit, it's as simple as that.

The apple tree does what is apparently intuitive: Grow more branches, send out more leaves, hope to absorb more sun. More leaves, right? That must be the solution: Just. Do. More. The branches go in too many directions. The light can’t reach in. The tree chokes on its own efforts.

Our apple tree, apparently, has no sense for priorities. So it divided its energy equally into several of its biggest branches. Our tree wrapped one of those branches in a chokehold around the other. It looked like a pair of serpents locked in struggle at the crest.

Those two branches rubbed a layer of protective bark from one another, and left our tree bare, exposed. What is to protect it from disease, now, or invasion by insects, or even the cold?

A good gardener will hack off pieces of an apple tree’s body every year. Lop them right off in the fall, no matter whether they managed fruit or not. “Some fruit” is not the deciding factor of whether a branch stays. A branch earns its keep by the direction it grows; that’s it. The aim of the gardener is to let light in. A branch that blocks light has got to go. More light, more fruit; it’s simple as that.

Lately, I’ve been hungry for light. What kind of instincts are mine? Generally, to send up more branches, make more leaves. The more that go into the air, the more are likely to turn down, cross over, U-turn. 

And I feel I cannot reasonably take the blade to any of them.

A year ago I trimmed our apple tree with a pair of shears as long as my arm. I snipped off downturned branches and those that criss-crossed, their aims clearly in direct competition, unable to co-exist. But I was afraid to cut any of the larger branches, so I snipped mostly twigs. I could see clearly how twisted and misshapen the larger branches had grown, how truly unhealthy they had become. Still, I held back my hand.

I didn’t want to kill it. And that was the real fear, when we were talking cutting off one of the two serpent heads at the top of the trunk, one of the two locked into a struggle for dominance.

The tree cannot grow correctly with two competing for the crown. One steals from the other, and neither can truly thrive.

But I was afraid that killing one and choosing the other for survival would doom the whole thing. I could not shake the image of lopping off one of the tree's arms; surely it would just bleed out. We’re talking significant damage, a significant portion of its life. It had put years into that branch. And here I wanted to cut it in the course of minutes.

How can a thing live with that kind of loss? Isn’t it better to let it continue on in its disfigurement? Unhealthy is better than dead, right?

My husband didn’t think so. Last fall, he hacked off that big branch. He chopped it off and tossed it in a pile, along with a bunch of other branches. He cut them off and threw them into the fire later that winter. I came home and noticed, not so much the tree itself but the air around it, the space, the way it looked as though it could finally breathe. It was after I saw the space that I realized that almost half the tree was gone.

“Do you really think it can survive all that at once?” I asked him.

He didn’t know. But he figured, if it kept going the way it was, it was going to wind up fruitless anyway. What was the point?

And last week, I saw them, the tiny miracles: pink and white blossoms sprinkled on the branches, just in time for spring.


  1. What a beautiful reminder that WE need to keep pruning our lives--cutting out what clutters and keeps the Light from shining in. It's such a scary process, though!

    1. Scary process indeed. Sometimes when I write a post like this I freak out a little, thinking, "Now I have to take my own advice!"

  2. Oh thank you so much. Your nature and garden-y blog posts make me wish I was a better gardener. But they also make me want to be a better person, in that hard but freeing way that pruning is.

    I absolutely love this: "Some fruit" is not the deciding factor of whether a branch stays. A branch earns its keep by the direction it grows in; that's it.

    That's such a cutting, necessary reminder to me right now. I have been bearing "some fruit" for so long, but that is not how we earn our keep, our freedom, our light. Weary trees must shed good things, too..

    1. Secret: I'm a terrible gardener. But my husband is amazing, and he is teaching me his Jedi ways. I am looking forward to improving at gardening. I am starting to believe gardening is one of the best spiritual practices in the world.

      I feel weak whenever I think about the pruning that needs done. I think in my case it has to be a day-by-day process, instead of a one-time-in-the-fall kind of event.

  3. I love this. Do I write that every time I read a post? I needed this right now. I'm just doing more and then more and then more and wondering where the light is.

    1. Thanks Kirsten. I'm so glad to have you as a reader and blog friend.

  4. This is so insightful. We have so much to learn from nature.

    It's a challenging thought that sometimes the big branch--that thing that we think is so essential to our lives--is actually what needs to get cut. That we can't always find balance by just snapping a few twigs.

    I want to lodge this thought deep in my brain, and hope it comes back to me when I need it.

    1. I'm suddenly totally getting why so many of Jesus' parables are about gardening. Dude was brilliant.
      Are you cutting a branch?