Pruning trees – the activity, the judgement required, the variables – is a metaphor for deciding where to put my own life energies: which branches to keep, and which will never amount to anything.
This one will never come to anything.
Snip snip. A long, skinny twig growing sideways off a major branch is gone. The professional gardener is explaining as he goes—a favour to me, since I mentioned an interest in becoming a better pruner.
This one is crossed.
Snip snip. This time, his clippers move too quickly for me to see the habit of growth to which he’s objecting—to see the branches that were crossing over each other. Nor do I quite get how he has chosen one branch over the other.
And this one is growing inward.
Snip snip. I squint at the tree sideways. Now I’m confused. Wasn’t there also something about not leaving holes? If all the branches growing inward are removed, won’t that leave holes everywhere?
But when he steps back from the magnolia tree, declaring that he’s done—and that to do any more at this time of year might stress the tree—the net effect is good. And within less time than seems reasonable, he transforms the adjacent Japanese lilac tree from an interlocking rat’s nest of new, old, and dead growth to something that looks very like a carefully tended tree. The guy is a miracle worker.
Yet when he moves on to the service berry tree, he clucks unhappily. Its division into three main but spindly branches is neither structurally sound nor easily repairable. Each major branch is too small to withstand high winds, yet too big to be pruned away now. He cuts selectively, aiming only to increase its bushiness.
This, I’m thinking, is not something I can learn by watching. There are just too many variables: the species of tree, the age and condition of the specific specimen, the space and light available in its location, the season. There’s just too much judgement required, to know what can be accomplished and what cannot; to allow for whether the flowers grow on new wood or on old. And going beyond watching—practicing by laying clippers on the only trees to hand—is clearly a bad idea.
This one will never come to anything.
The next day, I smile as my subconscious connects the dots for me. As the gardener pruned my trees, so, too, did he unintentionally prune my ambitions. My long-held-but-never-acted-on wish to become a better pruner—my own long, skinny twig—has been neatly excised from the main branch.
It gets me to thinking about what other ambitions I’ve pruned, over the years, even if only implicitly. Playing a musical instrument. Writing children’s books. Writing poetry. Learning French. Working in international development. Learning cross-stitch. Living in another country. Did I abandon something too quickly, I wonder?
It gets me to thinking, too, about the ambitions still on tap. Speaking Spanish well. Learning to draw. Using a real camera properly. Learning to knit. Getting fit. Writing a novel. Becoming a birder. Am I chasing too much, I wonder?
In life as in trees, pruning mistakes are ugly. Over-pruning creates gaping holes or a stark trunk devoid of side branches altogether. Under-pruning fosters tiny, inward-growing, criss-crossing branches that break whenever the wind comes up. And the wind does come up.
Worse, we’ve only got the one life in which to learn how to account for our own variables: Are we naturally branchers or straight growers? Are we already committed to some old growth? What season of our life are we at? Is there ample or limited space and light in our current location?
Life as a well-pruned tree won’t be the right metaphor for everyone. But for me—an indiscriminate accumulator of more ambitions than the time allows—maybe it will help.
Maybe it will help me remember that good, timely pruning is as important as growing; that it actually helps the growing.
Maybe it will help me keep my life from becoming a rat’s nest of barely started, half-finished, and de facto abandoned projects, building instead a sufficiently diverse structure that will also withstand the inevitable high winds.
And so I have a new question to challenge where I put my time, money, physical energy, and mental focus.
Will this one ever come to anything? No?