On Pruning Our Lives

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Photo via Bartlett Tree

Pruning Our Lives.

Every fall, the men and women who run orchards and vineyards prune their flocks. They walk their land, survey their trees, and look at their notes from years past. Which limbs no longer crank out the fruit? Which limbs need to be trimmed back to allow new growth into open spaces? Which limbs are dead? Which trees are no longer worth the expense in time, compost, fertilizer, and water? For which ones is pruning not the answer; entire trees need to be pushed over by the tractor and split for firewood for the stove?

It’s hard work, making those calls. Farmers look at their trees with affection. They have a history with their trees. For farmers who worked the land as kids with their moms and dads, they might remember when the fruit trees were planted. For those whose moms and dads worked the land with their grandparents, it’s even tougher. The peach trees, the apples, cherries, the almonds — those trees provided shade and food and income for many years.

My wife’s grandfather was a kindly dairy farmer. Every time he used to send an old, dry dairy cow to the slaughterhouse, he used to hold her head in his hands as he loaded her onto the truck and cry over the end of his old friend. I’m sad that I never met him.

Farmers are attached to their land and their trees and their crops. Saying good-bye is not done without a wagonload of soul-searching. Yet, to keep the land healthy and producing, it has to be done.

I look around my yard. I have 14 significant trees; some 300 year old landmark oaks, a couple of 150- 200 year old sugar maples, and a threesome of Japanese maples entering into their 12th decade. The previous owners put in now-40 year- old flowering crab apples and magnolias. There is an assortment of pines and a blue spruce, all in their 80s, and nearing the end of their lives.

We planted a lovely now-15 year old shagbark river beech around the same time our hakuro-nishiki, a graceful, dappled willow, Salix integra, went in the ground. A few years back, we planted four fruit-bearing columnar apple trees.

We also have shrubbery; weigelia and forsythia and such. We purchased them from Roger the Shrubber. Shrubberies were his trade, he said. He arranged, designed, and sold shrubberies.

I am connected, at a cellular level, with my green-scapery. My trees give great pleasure. In spring, I like to walk around and watch them leaf out. The birds build nests in them. Insects eat the leaves and buds. Swallows and bats swoop and eat the insects at evening. In June, when I get back from an afternoon bike ride, I lay on my deck on my back, and watch the leaves shadow out the early summer sky above my head.

In August, at the height of thunderstorm season, I watch the leaves flutter to unseen winds as the storms clouds roll in, my own personal NOAA early warning storm system. In late fall, as the gales and storms blow through Michigan, I pick up all the downed hardwood, cut it with my chainsaw, and stack it for use in my smoker and grill the next season. The downed leaves, they’re mulched and returned to the soil.

Yet, every fall, I walk around my ½ acre and make mental notes of what needs to come out. A couple of dead lilacs need to be pulled entire. Some flowering crab limbs need to be removed — they no longer flower so I need to remove them and let the new growth seek a path to the sky.

A few years back, a magnolia limb shattered in a bad storm. I patched it back to the main trunk. I rooted for it, fed it, nursed it, but it never recovered, and so it must come down. I have emotion and time invested in that tree.

I have emotions and time invested in a lot of people, too. Over the years, I’ve developed relationships; some good, some less than good, some stellar, some are toxic as the Love Canal. Some are workplace. Some are sports leagues or music classes and theater. Some are simple geography.

Some are from college, those halcyon days where all I had to do was study, play sports, party, and bond with people who, for the last time in my life, were exactly within my age cohort. And yes, college was fun. It was for you, too, I’m sure.

But people change, yes? Some of our friends no longer share our values, our ethos, our aims for a better life. But because they let us hark back to “The Best Days of Our Lives,” we can’t let go, even of the most toxic of them.

Later in life, it’s the guy at work who runs the fantasy football league. He does a good job, jolly guy, but drops way too many N-bombs for your comfort. It’s the guy from your soccer team who can’t speak about his latest girlfriend without using “c*^t” or bitch or such? It’s the woman in book club who thinks Jerry Falwell, Jr got a raw deal.

Over the last four years, we’ve seen this writ large. Friends; people we trusted, cared about, about 50% of America, tragically — we’ve discovered that they support misogyny, kids in cages, xenophobia, racism, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-LGBTQ+, white supremacy, faux-christianity, anti-scientism, anti-critical thought, more than 230,000 dead people from a refusal to address the Covid crisis.

They celebrate, or at least tolerate, hate, violence, massive corruption, division, basic inhumanity, incivility, and cruelty.

They’re okay with bullying, lying, and incoherence of thought and speech.

All of those things? Probably not, but they tolerate them enough that none of them are deal-breakers for their life’s politics.

As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Believe them.

It’s time to prune our yards. Take a pair of loppers and excise those people from our lives. Some might argue “we need to reach out,” “we need to understand,” “we need to let them know they are heard.” Sadly, I am convinced we are past that point.

This is not a discussion on how to make healthcare fair and equitable and affordable. This is about the most basic essence of human rights and life.

The one who always feels obligated to share the latest anti-vaxxer, chemtrail, flat earth, pizza-parlor pedophilia news ? Gone.

The one who tries to defend the cops who murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor? Gone.

The one who defends kids in cages because “they didn’t come here the right way?” They won’t understand that the horrific poverty and dangers the immigrants lived with 24/7 in their homeland preclude any chance of immigrating “the right way?” Gone.

The ones who cherry pick from the Bible to justify their hate for others not exactly like them? Gone.

Should we welcome them back should they realize that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness apply equally to every single American, every single one of us? Of course, with open arms, a cold beverage, and some decent BBQ.

Today, let’s take a walk around the yards we call our lives. Look hard at all the dead wood, the hangers without cherries and peaches, the poison ivy climbing a healthy tree.

What do you see? Nothing you need in your life.

Prune back your yard. Stand up tall again. Let the light in. Reach up for the skies surrounded again by those who support your dreams and self-ideals and ethos. Live your life large and unencumbered. Shine a light, my friend, a big freaking Bass Harbor Head lighthouse worth of light. Just like mayflies hatch on a warm Michigan June evening and head for the brightest light around, watch goodness flock to your light. You’ve found your tribe.

And there and then, you’ll change the world.

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