In the winter months when the apple trees are dormant, it is time to prune in the orchard. The buds, leaf buds as well as fruit buds, spiral around the bare branches. The trees hold only an occasional shriveled fruit. Winter light casts long shadows: the patterns on the snow, a perplexing labyrinth of the three-dimensional flattened into two.

A few days ago I walked into the orchard with a saw in its sheath hanging from my belt and sharpened loppers in hand. I was looking for a row of young trees, something easy, something to get started on, to get my head back into the routine of pruning. I stared at the first tree, a Crimson Crisp, one of the orchard’s new disease-resistant varieties. Its central leader was leaning too far to one side. We prune our trees to a main leader, a single trunk, and shape the branches similar to a Christmas tree, wanting the lower branches to extend farther than the ones above, a way to get light to all branches, to all fruit. Without light, the lower branches will die back and the tree will become umbrella-shaped. The apples won’t sweeten and color well.

With this lean, I stood hesitant. To cut it off would be to decapitate the tree. But to allow it to grow in the wrong direction would be irresponsible. I saw that my neighbor was also outside. Ed abuts the orchard on the east and he has always pruned a dozen trees along his property. We shouted hello like two sailors passing but then I decided to call him over.  “Oh, the lean expert,” he said referring to himself when he saw the tree. A month ago Ed had helped me haul up a fallen tree (Blogpost: The Fallen Tree). At the time, we had debated the merits of how far to pull the tree. I hesitated to go beyond some innate flexibility that I intuited; he wanted us to pull it up straight and tall, the engineer in him. This time his was the voice of reason. He suggested I leave the leaning main trunk for now, but that I tie up a young, flexible horizontal branch to see if it might be trained to become the new leader.

He went back to his side of the orchard and I moved on to the next tree. This one was easier – only a few snips – a removal of a top branch that was already more than half the diameter of the trunk.

Then Ed called me over to one of his trees, a big old one with a lot of wood in the top third. I suggested removing a thick branch, one of those calloused elephant trunks. A large cut in the upper part of the tree rejuvenates. He agreed and I went for it with my saw. Pulling the blade back and forth, smoothly enough so it wouldn’t catch and chug, and carefully enough so it didn’t slip and scar the branch, the saw made a rhythmical rasping sound.

Pruning large apple trees changes one’s sensitivity to one’s own body. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, after the initial shock of the diagnosis, I was ready for surgery. Take off my breast. Let me be done with it.  I knew from the orchard that quick removal prevents further spread of disease and I trusted that my body would heal. However, when I stand in front of a mirror my body is altered. Maybe I should accept another lesson the trees offer. We’re all lopsided, leaning in one direction or another, keen to hide our defects. The tree wears everything visibly. I can start at a twig tip and follow the growth in years right down the branch counting the unions. Branch collars signify large cuts; the jig-jag in a branch shows the annual reining in of fast-growing wood.   

When pruning, I circle around each tree asking what is growing in the wrong direction, what is shading, where is the best fruiting wood? When I remove a large branch, I always look back at the new shape of the tree. I want to see that it was the right decision, that it was a good cut, that the tree is more open. And then there is that moment when I know I’ve done enough. I leave the tree trusting it will respond and move onto its neighbor. 

I don’t know if the cancer has moved anywhere else in my body. There’s no snipping a branch to see its health. I learn to live with uncertainty. The prunings left in the orchard I will pick up and pile into a two-story mound. The apple buds that will never become fruit and the branches that contain so much history will be kindled, the fire will roar, and in the course of a day, it will all burn down to charred black bits and ash. When the embers are cold, I will rake what’s left and distribute a little to each tree. This dark carbon returns to the soil and the trees will benefit. They give of their bodies; then they receive.