The apple tree in my backyard has not been well cared for. It is diseased and weak, and when overburdened with apples, branches often come crashing down. The apples are no good to eat.
I can only assume that in the years before we bought this house and moved in, no one took the time to trim the tree, to care for it properly. No one attempted to stop the spreading black fungus which crept along, year after year, eventually covering many of the larger branches. No one tried to halt the invasion of boring insects.
It won’t survive for many more years, this old apple tree, but we’ve done our best to save it by fertilizing and watering it often, applying treatments to heal its ailments, and trimming it back in the spring and fall.
This apple tree will be appreciated in its final years, for I believe there are many lessons to be learned from it. On quiet days, the tree whispers to me with the wisdom of an elder.
I look out over my backyard as I write, towards Lake Superior and this craggy apple tree. It resembles a bonsai tree, with a Zen quality that can only be attained through time. It is still beautiful in its old age, and in the darkest days of winter when the sun rises behind it, the creeping red over the lake horizon casts the tree in a celestial glow.
Clearly visible in that halo of light are the stumps where branches have been sawed off in the distant past, and long, spindly new shoots, jutting in every direction, which must have been hidden behind leaves and apples when we trimmed in the fall. We will cut most of them back in the spring. Those that are strong and straight we’ll leave, to balance the tree where a branch may have broken the year before. When a healthy shoot rises next to a sickly one, a choice will need to be made.
My life often feels like this tree, overburdened, with new shoots coming up every year. There is so much that requires my attention, my time, my life energy, that I must continuously try to determine what to keep and what to cut. If I don’t trim back some branches, I will get diseased and weak, like the apple tree. I cannot sustain them all.
Choices need to be made.
Some shoots fill in areas that are bare. They stretch toward the sun and even out the places where I am vulnerable. They make me whole. They are keepers.
Some shoots are harmful, unnecessary, demanding or negative. They need to be trimmed. Those are the easiest decisions to make.
At times I must cut away branches that I have nurtured and loved, though it hurts terribly to do so. When something has become so toxic that it causes distress, I know in the long run I will be healthier for it. Sometimes a part of the branch remains as a reminder. In bonsai this is called jin, signifying that the tree has had to struggle to survive. How fitting.
When the saw makes the cut–back and forth, back and forth, back and forth–it is a long and tortuous, painful task. Often it’s better when the axe does the job. There’s an abrupt end with the axe, very finite, with little time to ponder or contemplate. The pain is quick and intense, then passes.
Other times the branch simply breaks, splits under the pressure with a resounding crack, and falls to the ground. Afterwards I feel lighter, never realizing until then how much that branch had been weighing me down. Unfortunately, the breaking usually leaves fragments, splintered remains, or pulls off more than it should, tearing away at the bark of the trunk. I have learned to remove those branches before they fall; they can do a lot of damage on the way down. Sometimes they break other branches on the way that I had intended to keep.
In the fall, trimming helps the tree to conserve its resources so it can survive the harsh winter. After trimming in the spring, the apple tree blooms. It has more to give to the branches that remain, more energy to thrive. It stands taller, is less weighed down, more balanced. Healthier.
And really, isn’t life all about staying healthy and finding balance? How much can we handle? How much can we give? How much can we ask for? How much can we take? How much can this small bit of matter we inhabit actually accomplish in a lifetime?
With each trim and each new growth, my energy changes, what I have to give changes, and similar to the silhouette of the apple tree in the sunrise, the way I am perceived changes.
Looking out over that tree I have realized that there will always be new growth and letting go of the old. And it is good. It’s okay to accept that something doesn’t work in my life anymore. It is okay to move on, to leave behind that which is toxic, to let go of an old dream and create another, and to keep what I need for myself. Because in order for me to thrive and care for what I love, I must be also well cared for. I must be balanced and healthy before I can be fruitful.
“It’s up to you to choose what is important and worthy of your precious life energy. It is up to you to decide the things you need to let go. It’s up to you to be bold and keep only that which will help you grow healthier, find balance, and become a beautiful, craggy tree in your own way, with your roots firmly planted in the Earth, and your branches dancing in the wind, joyously reaching for the sky.”
That is what the old apple tree whispers to me.