In 2006, when I was first learning about organic apple growing, I heard about a group of holistic apple growers who gather in western Massachusetts once a year for twenty-four hours of apple conversation. I signed up. Thirty men and two women besides myself, met at noon at Stumps Sprouts, a retreat center in Rowley, Massachusetts. We began with a vegetarian lunch. In the dining room an earthy energy emanated from the rugged men in Carharts, flannel shirts, and work boots. One thin man with a long grey beard had Felco pruners hanging on his belt, just in case something needed pruning. Up in the barn, to begin our first session, Michael Phillips, the organizer and author of The Holistic Orchard as well as the forthcoming, Mycorrhizal Planet, asked us to introduce our orchards. One of the men I met was Alan Suprenant who has a small orchard in Ashfield, Massachusetts. I asked Alan if he would be a guest blogger.
The Orchard in Winter by Alan Suprenant
When we think of an orchard, we think about eating delicious fruit in the crisp, fall sunshine. We think of the wonderful fragrance of the trees in bloom, the gentle colors of the blossoms, the soft breeze that blows petals around our feet. But what of the orchard in winter, when trees seem to sleep, limbs akimbo against their bed of snow?
We can learn a lot from spending time with the orchard now, at this quiet time of year, observing what, on the surface, might at first seem unobservable. There’s a lot to learn about ourselves as well, there being many parallels between our lives and the lives of the trees.
Winter dormancy finds the orchard patiently waiting for a new year and the beginning of another growing cycle. This can be a time of patience and unfolding for us as well, as we anticipate and plan for what’s next in our lives and our lives with the trees. There’s little to do and much to be — loving, appreciative, optimistic, excited — as we wait for spring. How might we do this quietly, the way they do? Perhaps we just sit and watch them be still, as the light changes and the wind blows.
Snow on the horizontal limbs of a well-pruned fruit tree allows us to clearly see the tree’s bones, the structure that supports the weight of a good crop. The fruit buds have already formed last summer. They will absorb the sunlight and ripen the fruit to its utmost potential.
What does it mean for our lives to have good bones and a structure that supports us in bearing fruit? Good friends? Work we love? Self care? Balance in what we do? What feeds us in our lives, and how might we absorb it for our ripening?
A fruit tree should be pruned each year. Removing what isn’t needed helps ripen the fruit. Sometimes, looking down at a growing pile of discarded wood, it seems like I’m taking an awful lot away. But I’m paring down to what is essential for and about the tree, so it can become more of itself. It’s an art, this figuring out what to keep, and well worth it, because what grows now will be healthy, productive, and strong.
Pruning our own lives can be equally challenging, as we figure out, learning as we go — what is essential about and for us. What might we discard that no longer serves us? An assumption? A belief? A story that limits us or people we know? How might we prune our relationships so they grow stronger and yield the best that we and others have to offer?
Some of the branches I cut in winter, scions, are saved for grafting onto rootstock in the spring. You make new trees this way, by gently inserting new wood into old, binding the two together until, fed by the soil and the sun, they become one. What parts of others might we take into ourselves to grow something new? And how will our new branching grow over the years? All this watching and waiting makes me better with the trees. I’m more able to understand the way they grow, what they need, how they respond to weather and light. I try something and then I pause — for a minute, a month, or a year — and see what happens, what the trees and my experience tell me. And it makes me better with my life as well. I’m more able to let things and people take their natural course. I can see more clearly what someone needs in order to feel safe or productive or loved.
Teaching people about my orchard gives me the opportunity to share not just the technical things — which limbs to take, what varieties to choose, how to hold the knife to make a good graft — but the essence of the orchard — a place of profound learning, quiet and, ultimately, delight.