ON PRUNING (2006)
Cut it way back.
Do not be afraid to pinch the first,
the only blossom. The berry cannot thrive
in freedom. Have no mercy,
gardener. Train the tree to a leader
crowned by the uppermost bud.
Make ten o’clock your angle
for the outstretched limbs
of the apple. Prune
when the knife is sharp,
taking care that the scar be neat.
To share the surgeon’s belief in healing,
you must trust what has been taken from you
is a blessing. Trust
by April the cherry and pear
will fill in, stitching
the dreamiest lace, punto in aria,
think of it
as a veil if you must.
And the rose, this is a special case.
When winter’s close, cut back
the tallest stems, then with soil
topped with straw or leaves, bury the plant,
make the mound as high as you can,
as if the grave were your own
impermanent home, as if you believed anything
could bloom again.
I suppose that I do believe that anything can bloom again, if only in memory (see my earlier post, “On the Past“).
But I don’t want to focus on the paradox involved in pruning, namely, that we injure a plant in order to help it thrive. For centuries, that idea has captivated people. The ancients adopted it as a trope, as does Allison Funk. For example, Horace, in the poem containing the oft-heard phrase “seize the day” (carpe diem, Odes 1.11.8), uses the verb reseces to advise that we “cut back” our hopes and expectations for the future, since our lives are so short.
What’s that song? “Cruel to be Kind?” By ruthlessly simplifying your life, you paradoxically make it richer. By focusing on the here and now — “being mindful” is the expression in vogue — you meet the future with greater calm and capability.
None of that explains the feeling you get, though, when after much experience, you are holding the branch of a tree in one hand and your trusty saw in the other. It’s reminiscent of that tingly, dazed feeling that sometimes overcomes you when someone is cutting your hair. Or a stranger’s arm is grazing yours on the armrest between your seats.
What, then, is the source of that feeling? I’m not sure, but I connect it to those moments in our lives when we sense, really sense, the presence of another reality. What I mean is this. Each of us is the center of his or her own universe. We can never truly inhabit another person’s mind, being, and life. Put it this way: we are always more real to ourselves than anyone else, even the one person in the world with whom we are most intimate, can ever be to us.
But from time to time, below or beyond conscious thought, we do sense the immensity and complexity of another person’s universe. Something unanticipated draws us out of ourselves, something quiets the din of “I… me … I … me.” For a passing moment, as we float in a reverie, we can hear the whisper of another person’s “I” and “me.”
It’s as if you were to watch a single dust mote settle on your hand and be able to feel the potential of the enormous energy contained in its tiny mass.
It’s zen or something like it.
And so pruning is worth thinking more about. My life is not especially complicated. I don’t need another metaphor for living more simply or in the moment.
Instead, I want to find out whether I can connect pruning to some of what I touched out in my earlier post “The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (1978).” That is, when I am pruning a tree, I think that I have the strong, intoxicating feeling that I am simultaneously unveiling the tree’s true and perfect form and creating a form that only I would and could create. It’s discovery and invention at the same time. Does that make sense?
Which is another way of saying that when I’m in that meditative mood — stepping back, gazing at tree shapes that exist so far only in my imagination, trying to see, stepping forward again, laying the edge of my saw on bark — I am both me and not me.
More later. Or perhaps not so much more as other.