Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Pruning Trees

Discussing how an experienced gardener prunes back the limbs of a new tree, Michael Pollan says:

Sympathy allows the green thumb to cut the tree's limbs back hard -- that, and a sense of where a plant's "being" resides that is very different, I think, from the novice gardener's. The inexperienced gardener is loath to chop away at his new tree (indeed, to prune in general) because he assumes that the tree is indistinguishable from its limbs. This is probably because he looks at a plant more or less anthropomorphically -- by means of a mode that, though useful in some respects, fails to take account of those parts of the plant that don't, like [people] stand on the surface. Later, if he gardens attentively and sympathetically, he'll develop a more complicated and less anthropomorphic understanding of how, and where, a tree lives. He'll probably come to think of the tree as having something akin to a soul that is distinct from its parts, and for which the limbs sometimes (at transplanting, for instance) represent a burden it might be glad to be rid of. If "soul" seems too mystical a term, think of it as simply the tree's life force, or the wellspring of its growth, what Dylan Thomas called its "green fuse." Imagine this as the fulcrum of the tree's roots and its visible parts, something located maybe just below ground level, and pruning will no longer seem cruel, but beneficent, a form of relief and a spur to fresh growth.

Now, I have no idea if there is any "scientific" basis for these notions of plant identity, but I can't say [that] I really care. It is enough to know that since I have begun to imagine my plants in this way I have had more success with them. The successful gardener, I've found, approaches science and folk wisdom, even magic, with like amounts of skepticism and curiosity. If it works, then it's "true." Good gardeners tend to be flat-out pragmatists not particularly impressed with science.

~Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

I think that's about right. It's true not just for successful gardeners, but also for successful Witches and other magic workers. If it works, then it's "true."

I love this passage for the way that it shows how difficult it can be for anyone to really be in relationship with nature and not turn into a Pagan. Pollan starts out pragmatically talking about how a gardener should prune a transplanted tree -- and then the struggle starts. He resorts to words like "soul," realizes that sounds "woo-woo," tries to step back, and walks straight into words such as "life forces," "wellspring," and the language of mystical poetry. Finally, he gives up and says it: magic.

In what way(s) has your relationship with nature been an active one today? What do you know to be true because it works?

Picture found here.


Teacats said...

Well -- here's one thing I've learned in my garden: sometimes it is truly "be cruel to be kind" LOL! My old roses used to be babied -- nursed most tenderly and gently. And they withered, wilted and died. Now we chop them off -- sometimes with a chainsaw when we are pruning the rest of the bushes around the house -- and guess what?? Fat, lovely happy-to-be-blooming roses! LOL! Snip off those wonderful fragrant heads and take them inside to join the party! And the herbs love to be used ... snip, chop and cut them back. And then -- bobs-yer-uncle -- up they pop again! Which ones don't do well? The ones that are NOT used as they should be -- in potpourri, arrangements and cooking and brewing up magic.

Off to shoo off the bees -- and snip some chives ... they are getting a bit bushy and crowded ....

P.S. remember the talking flowers in Alice in Wonderland (the original storybook ... and how they hated to be crowded??)

P.P.S. remember the wonderful description of the garden coming back to life in The Secret Garden? After the pruning?

Jan at Rosemary Cottage

Lucy Fur Leaps said...

Was just thinking about this today when I looked at the rose tree in my front garden. It's going to get radically chopped and it jolly well needs it. What a wonderful piece of writing! Thanks for posting it.