This is the time of year for pruning apples trees; making sure they are not too leggy or spindly, lessening their susceptibility to disease. Had I been feeling more like myself last week, I’d have had a go at the big tree at home, it has too many limbs! Apparently you can prune them on into the spring and summer, if you must, but now is a good time to get the long handled secateurs out, climb up onto a platform and start thinning. It is a very satisfying job. My father would say that a fruit tree was well pruned if it had space enough between the branches for a bird to fly through. That’s not how it’s looking right now. E. pruned his elder last week – or as my dad used to call it, the boor-tree bush (funny name, makes it sound like a churlish, yokel of a bush… ). “How far back did you take it?” I asked him, reminding him that dad used to take it almost down to the ground every year. Each year I would think: he’s killed it, that bush is never going to make it back. And each time, by August, it was taller than me. ‘Goosegabs’, that’s another one to be pruning now, our local name for the gooseberry bush. Very thorny, a good pair of gloves required. Isn’t it a funny thing, in some ways, that cutting something back, making a plant look bare and spare and post-apocalyptic, is all for the good? We pare back in order to stimulate, strengthen and render it more fruitful. To a seasoned gardener, it is but common sense: faith born out of knowledge and experience. But the first time I cut something back hard, untutored and unsupervised, I was: not, quite, sure. Surely I had killed it? How could life spring back from those frail looking branches? It did.
If this is the time of year to prune apples and elders and goosegabs, what is the best time for us to prune our own lives? As with nature, every so often we carefully and judiciously remove metaphorical branches in the home – the ‘big clear out’, making way for light and space and air. The beneficiaries of the indoor pruning are the local charity shop, the car-boot sale, the municipal dump, our new-found space and feeling of lightness! Maybe you’re moving house, or someone is coming to stay, a new baby is expected, or a teenager has left home; this is the sort of pruning we are in control of it, we can take our time and go at our own pace. This pruning feels good. But what about the pruning that is imposed onto us; when we are mugged by nature, and hurricanes blow through our lives uprooting whole trees never mind just branches? It might seem like the stuff of nightmares, things are stolen from us, changes are entirely out of our hands: an operation, a job loss, a car wreck, a house fire, the loss of a loved one. ‘Pruning’ seems like a wholly inappropriate word now, doesn’t it? Yet every knock-out punch is as much part of the cycle of nature as cutting the boor-tree bush to the quick and patiently waiting for it to regrow. We can all re-grow if we give ourselves enough time and if we have faith that it is possible.
‘The Pruned Tree’, by Howard Moss
“Somewhere what I lost I hope is springing
To life again. The roofs, astonished by me,
Are taking new bearings in the night, the owl
Is crying for a further wisdom, the lilac
Putting forth its strongest scent to find me.
Butterflies, like sails in grooves, are winging
out of the water to wash me, wash me.
Now, I am stirring like a seed in China.”