Lessons from Apple Trees

sweet apple blossoms
sweet apple blossoms

The house I lived in until I was ten, had many apple trees on the property, both in the yard and out in the pasture to the east.  These were big old trees, probably over a hundred years old.  Though the apples from them were beset with scab and coddling moths, they were still very much worth eating.  The tree closest to the house had big wide spread branches, with at least three swings suspended from them. We spent many hours perched up in it, from spring blossom time- through a July spent eating too many sour green apples, till fall, when the apples fell to the ground, all bird pecked rotting red sweetness covered in wild bees.

Sometime, way back, someone trimmed that tree, sculpting it so that it was open inside and to maximize the ease of picking. My mother continued the care by pruning the “sucker” branches each spring. It was very different from the “wild” apple tree that grew in the pasture- that one, with it’s crown a mess of tangled branches and the large mysterious hole in the trunk from some long past injury, was the very picture of a spooky halloween card. The two trees embody the outcome of two paths, one of care, and one of neglect. One fruitful, one sickened and barren. Sometimes health is best attained, not by adding something but by being mindful about what you prune away.

In Permaculture there is a core tenet that if you want change you need to support that change. Trellising is a phrase I have heard used for this. For example, it is possible to train a fruit tree into nearly any form, but it requires not just an awareness that a branch angle is too sharp, you need to physically place something to act as a branch spreader for a season, after which the tree will hold the desired angle. Sometimes when we want to make changes in our life we expect that just having the awareness that a change is needed is the same thing as making the change- and then we beat ourselves up about not changing direction.

Branch spreader used in orchard craft to widen the branch angle on a young fruit tree
Branch spreader used in orchard craft to widen the branch angle on a young fruit tree

To begin to change I have needed to first get clarity on what to change, and to seek out guidance on how to change. Slowly I have tried to figure out where trellising is needed, and what might need pruning.  I have read many books, and listened to interviews galore. What I have learned is that the specific changes I want to make must be led by a clear vision, just like an orchardist’s vision for an open canopy guides the placement of branch spreaders in a young tree. Success is most likely when you take one small thing at a time, and have patience.

Beautifully sculpted espalier apple tree
Beautifully sculpted espalier apple tree

Not all change has been self initiated. Chemo did a fair bit of pruning, which has resulted in some definite changes in my brain function. On good days I see it as an opportunity for an easier reset. I have to build new neural pathways,  so having a bit of a blank slate isn’t all bad. On less good days I feel just a bit panicked about the ways my mind has deteriated. The surgical pruning of my lymph system has necessitated radical changes in my life, many of which I never would have chosen for myself.  Learning to be resiliant and to foster cceptance has been much a part of this journey.

The sweet time of convalescence last year opened up the opportunity to support health in a few ways. The gift of being bedridden is it is an opportunity to read lots, think big thoughts, or just listen to wise people. The books SwitchDying to be Me and Radical Remission were all particularly helpful. Along with numerous interviews with Bernie Siegel about the power of thought in regards to healing. The suggestion to begin meditating was everywhere.

A is for apple
A perfect apple.

Perhaps the the most important thing that I learned was from Bernie Siegel. Focusing on gratitude, your personal truth and love, increases your happiness and absolutely improves the quality of your life, regardless of whether it leads to the curing of disease.  That bit about focusing on your personal truth is essential. It requires you to look at your shadow side and it may lead to pruning away of that which is not fruitful for nurturing your well-being.  The essence of what-does-not-nurture-you may be anything from a cluttered house, to unhealthful foods, to a person in your life that lowers your energy whenever you interact with them. Sometimes people are like kryptonite to us, sometimes we are kryptonite to them. But like sucker branches on a fruit tree we are weakened if we allow draining habits or relationships to grow at our expense.

Changing what you think about is both very simple, and very difficult. I know that now is the time for patience, that both changing and healing are long term goals.  I feel a bit like a newly planted orchard. As I see the first of the plum and quince begin to blossom I think about how everything has its own timeline, it will be months until the apple blossoms unfurl.  Perhaps this first flush of returning health is my version of bloom, and much tending is needed between now and the full ripening of all my changes.  Time will tell if the choices I have made so far will lead to a fruitful future.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Julia Clarice says:

    This made me think how change can happen in a brief second of time, but it can take months, a year, or even a lifetime to accept and adjust our life to. Is change the initial event, or our response to the event. Perhaps, the birthing energy of a change event continues to “create” throughout our lifetime. Thank you, Iris, for another thought provoking share.

  2. Eileen says:

    You always give me something to think about. I know clutter in my house needs to be pruned. Anyway, love you.

  3. Claire McIntyre says:

    THANK you Iris for sharing your chemo brain challenges. I had chemo last year over 4 months and I too feel a “muddy brain” especially when it comes to comprehending a new concept. So slow the neurons go! Thank you for being so open about your experience. I feel a deep sense of “brain” relief.


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