Art Prunings

There is a heap of apple prunings outside my studio door. The size of the pile might make you think that it contains all the pruned branches that came out of the orchard this winter, but it’s only a small portion. We burned a two-story tower in an intense bonfire a month ago. All that remained was a circle of charcoal. Would that it were so easy to release the debris and the clutter that accumulates year to year in our lives. As I spread these residues throughout the orchard, I imagine how it will help the soil: carbon, in the form of biochar. The no-longer-useful provides sustenance. What if our own life prunings supported our future growth? 

The tangled heap outside my studio door waits because I committed to use apple prunings to make sculpture. There is so much wood that comes off the trees every year; it astonishes me every time. I’ve tried before, a few times, making an 8-foot hanging apple ladder and a few smaller mobiles using branches, string, and bronze figures. They are good sculptures, but the branch is still a branch; I didn’t unfasten it from its normal function.

Apple Ladder (LH)

Apple Ladder (LH)

I have in mind something else for all these twigs, but what exactly I am not sure. My own life has become so connected to apples — their seasons and needs, how to grow healthier fruit, the intricacies of bud development — I want my art to also interrelate with the apple tree cycles.

When people ask me, “Are you an artist or an orchardist?” or “What is more important the orchard or your art?” I respond that it is being an artist, because that’s what informs everything I do in the orchard. And so it follows that if my life as an artist is inextricably connected to this orchard, I want to try to use the prunings as a medium. A painter uses paint to create a world of form and space, color and movement, light and dark. I wonder how and if I can do the same with these prunings?

It doesn’t hurt that I am committed to putting up an apple-themed exhibit next January in The Gallery at Villageworks in West Acton. The challenge is that the work has to hang on the walls and not extend out. And I can’t use the floor, because the space serves for movies, concerts, and performances.  So I am limited to a slightly bushy two dimensions.

My art is often following a knotted path that leads to something unknown. There is always a challenge, and moments (many) when I don’t think I can do it. I’m not actually sure I can use these prunings. They are delicate, wispy, all irregular with little side shoots, or long side shoots, buds, or tears in the bark. There are some stronger branches, too. We will see . . . but I have begun. I recognize this gnawing feeling as if the rope I am hanging onto is fraying and I have to do it before I fall.

There is that untenable, unknowable truth in all great art, the driving impetus of the artist that the viewer senses. The artist is trying to express something that is unknown, but very real. One of my favorite paintings is by Paul Gauguin and it is on view at the Museum of Fine art in Boston. 

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Paul   Gauguin

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Paul Gauguin

The entire cycle of human life is in this painting — old age, youth, middle age, the sacred, the animal, the mundane and the mystery. In the center is an androgynous figure reaching for an apple. Art that inspires me asks for a dialogue. It always leaves me with questions. Maybe that is one of its secrets; while art strives to express the unknown, it can only express a brief moment of truth. There are no definitive answers, only more questions. I’m hoping that working with the apple prunings will push me to explore in ways I haven’t done before as an artist and that working with this new challenge will be yet another gift of the orchard. 

Orchard Ruminants

Thoreau said that you must walk like a camel because it is said to be the only beast that ruminates while it walks. He got me pondering about this word ruminate. Chewing the cud is ruminating and pondering is also ruminating.

Ruminants are animals with multiple stomachs and the largest and first stomach is called the rumen. Cows, for example, have four stomachs. Grazing they fill their first one, the rumen, with barely chewed grass. Then they find a comfortable place to rest. From the rumen they bring back up this grass and chew and chew. They ruminate, they ponder, maybe even ask, “Who am I?” What is Cow?” The progressively smaller bits of grass when swallowed pass into the second stomach and then flow into the other two stomachs. Sharp thorns, crab grass — everything is broken down and all the nutrients are taken up. In this way cows and other ruminants eat plant materials that are indigestible by humans and animals with simple stomachs.

Sitting with Ox, wax: Sculpture, LH

Sitting with Ox, wax: Sculpture, LH

Thoreau knew that camels are the only ruminants that walk when they ruminate. [1] I guess all the other ones sit on their duff.  He chose the camel to chide us for sitting in libraries with our heads in books (or iPads) and not spending enough time outdoors. When he talked about walking and ruminating he meant that we should make the fields and woods our place to see and learn: we should be like the camel, walk and ruminate, be more present as we stride through this world.

Thoreau’s chiding got to me and I pulled myself out of my comfortable chair (away from my laptop), strapped my saw to my belt and grabbed loppers to begin pruning in the orchard. It was Ground Hog Day, an unseasonably warm day. Punxsutawney Phil (the ground hog in Pennsylvania) did not see his shadow, which meant that warm days were ahead. I tasted spring. It was like the instructions an enthusiastic French winemaker once told me for drinking a good wine, “Il faut le macher.” (You have to chew it.) I chewed spring, pondered over pruning decisions, and could even ruminate on the indigestible after a few hours among the trees.  

Only three days later heavy snow fell. Punxsutawney Phil might make better predictions with a little more rumination, but I didn’t care. The snow was beautiful and because we prune apple trees every year they have strong limbs. A camel can carry two hundred pounds, but an apple tree easily holds this weight in fruit, or in snow. There is strength in walking as well as standing. 

Snowy Tree.jpg

An apple tree doesn’t have one stomach or four stomachs, but you could consider the entire tree one great rumen. Sunlight, water, and minerals from the soil are turned into into complex carbohydrates, amino acids, and proteins. Not only do these trees grow healthy fruit, but they build organic soil and sequester carbon. Today Thoreau might say, we must stand still, grow deep roots: we must be more like the trees.

1. Technically camels are pseudo ruminants because they have three not four stomachs.