Art of pruning, lessons of life

01/26/2014 12:00 AM

01/25/2014 10:02 PM

My father taught me how to prune a peach tree.

He began with an old tree with weaker branches and gaps where a limb had died and was sawed off. Why a misshapen specimen? Because my sage father knew I was young and learning how to prune; he wisely didn’t want to sacrifice a good tree.

Our pruning shears were designed for trees with big branches. The head had a curved blade and when cutting into a large branch, the wood was not pushed outward but drawn inward, perfectly aligning with the cutting blade. We could quickly snip and cut with rapid, fluid motions.

The biggest lesson was that trees like to be pruned. They wanted to be sliced and diced. They needed annual haircuts and longed to be freed of their rank growth.

Pruning marked an annual rite of passage on our farm: Cut out the things that don’t belong. Purge the negatives. Open up leaf canopies to life. My job was to learn what belonged and what did not.

So I whacked and snipped and slashed. Branches fell, wood dropped. I copied the motions of my father pruning a tree next to me. He looked like a sculptor as his tree took shape. Hidden inside the mass of branches and limbs lay a clean, simple tree.

Dad warned me not to be afraid to cut. Contrary words from an artist? I thought you were supposed to take your time, reflect, admire your craft.

“The biggest problem,” he shared, is that “people don’t prune enough.” Then he repeated, “You need to cut out things that don’t belong.”

But what belongs? I wanted him to explain in detail, but instead he kept working around his tree, starting low at first, dancing with his shears. His arms initially seemed to flail and swing wildly; I mistook his speed as uncontrolled motions, but rapid movements did not imply imprecision. He glided and shuffled with expert footwork. He seemed to be constantly looking forward to the next branch while slicing another.

He then strategically placed the ladder. Tree fruit farmers and farmworkers use a tripod ladder. It looks unstable with only a single third leg pushed outward and away from the steps.

But it’s perfectly designed to fit between the major limbs. With a properly positioned ladder, you don’t have to nibble from the outside edges; you can insert yourself into the canopy and start whacking. If the goal is to purge, it requires you to get close up and in the middle. You can’t cleanse from a distance. You have to get your hands dirty.

Our trees already had the basic shape: The biggest and oldest branches were shaped into a vase – not too wide at the top, otherwise the exposed branches would burn in our 100-degree summer heat. But not too narrow and tight.

Later, I observed that the best trees had a wineglass shape, gently opening from the stem base and flowing outward. Too wide and it resembled a martini glass, too narrow and it looked like a champagne glass. I concluded it paid off to know your alcoholic beverages when you pruned. My father just shook his head at my observations, but grinned.

Gradually, a new tree took shape. The five or six major limbs grew upward from the base. Each limb had numerous branches with smaller “hangers” extending outward. The skinnier and smaller 1-year-old wood would have fruit the next year.

Peaches bear only on wood from the prior year, not the hardened, brown branches from years before. The fresh hangers are often reddish and you can see the little nodes or bumps in the surface where leaves and blossoms await the warmth of spring. Once you identify them, you can’t miss them. For years I never paid attention. I didn’t pause long enough to see the next year.

But magic came when my father finished his tree. Suddenly I looked up and could see through the branches. I saw the blue-gray sky of winter. It was as if he had opened up a secret world. Trapped behind the clutter of growth, hidden from our view, he had pruned away branches to open the canopy.

“It’s all about light,” he explained. He slowly motioned with his arm, raising it up high and then swinging it downward, wiggling his fingers as he mimicked the sunlight entering the tree top and striking the wood where buds lie, awaiting the warmth of a change of season.

He explained that you want to imagine the sunlight months from now, you want to feel summer when you prune; in the cold of winter, you want to see the light of summer as it penetrates and gives life. His skill in life was an ability to anticipate. Destiny, he seemed to tell me, was determined by your prior actions. Fate was built on everyday, seemingly simple deeds.

As my father whipped around another tree, opening it up to light, I could see the negative space he left behind. I no longer saw branches but also the space between the branches.

He helped me finish my tree and my lesson. I had more questions but he spoke little. He was about showing, not telling.

Now it was my turn and I still struggle every year. It’s hard to purge things in our lives. Prune away the excess. We live in a world of accumulation.

And I’m not sure I have the vision of my father as I try to see the future in the present.

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