The leaves, flowers, and fruits of a tree are simultaneously nurtured, held for a time securely in place, united, and ultimately allowed to fall from branches. January and February are the months each year during which I must attend to the branches of my fruit trees and, if necessary, those of the maples. It is the time of year when the sleeping trees are ready for pruning, when last year’s growth is cut and the trees shaped to keep them under a semblance of control.
When Zane, my wife, and I bought our house, the pear and apple trees were unkempt and in need of attention. Arriving at our new home in late summer, our first harvest needed to be done by climbing into the trees to reach those fruits whose locations were beyond the capacity of my ladder. But over the next three years, I pruned the branches shorter and shorter each winter, and I can now reach almost every pear and apple from a six-foot stepladder.
It is during the activity of pruning that each year I revisit the concept of a branch and how humanity has endowed this portion of a tree with a variety of symbolic meanings. Branches, for example, are like the arms of a tree, the shape of which often conjures its human-envisioned demeanor—a gnarled oak, a weeping willow, or a stately ash.
Beyond space, in the realm of time and human imagination, a tree offers a symbol of Creation and the balance between the spiritual (branch) and material (root) aspects of life in the “tree of life,” of the continuing evolution of life’s infinite variety in the branching of the “phylogenetic tree,” and of the continuity and divergence of personal lineage in the branching of the “family tree.”
But what does a spider whose sole intent is to fasten its web from branch to branch or a warbler seeking a suitable location for its nest know of time or human imaginings. To the spider, one branch may be much like another as an anchor for its web, but to the nesting bird or sleeping bat, branches are as varied as the trees themselves.
A Douglas-fir, for example, offers many suitable nesting sites for a variety of birds among it horizontal branches and abundant, stiff needles and a secure place the hoary bat to hang by day; but a western red cedar or Alaska yellow cedar, with its drooping branches and tiny scale-like leaves, has little that a nesting bird or sleepy bat requires. The same is true of a Pacific yew with its zigzagging branches and often scraggly form, of a western hemlock whose branches are sparsely clothed in lacy needles, or of a tamarack, whose branches are covered with little pegs to which are attached whorls of soft, pliable needles offering little protection from sun, wind, or rain.
But the same limber, downward sweeping branches that are unsuitable for a nesting bird, such as those of a grand fir, can shelter a snowshoe hare. A grand fir’s boughs with their flat needles often become weighted down and frozen into snow as it continually piles up around the fir’s base during a long mountain winter. In the cavity created and maintained under the fir’s bough as it becomes roofed over by snow, a hare is safe and warm, out of the bitter cold wind.
As a boy, I thought branches were made for climbing. But even then, I discerned that there were safe and unsafe branches and that some trees, because of the characteristics of their branches, were easier to climb than others. I learned to “read” a tree’s branches, taking none for granted before placing my weight on them or using them to pull myself upward.
Some branches, such as those of the hawthorn, locust, or acacia, are not readily climbable because of their thorns. Some branches, such as those of the South American monkey-puzzle tree, are protected by sharp, scaly leaves, which can confound even a monkey. Others, like beech, are smooth and difficult to grasp. Spruce branches are covered by tiny, rough “pegs;” whereas rhododendron branches at the timberline on Phulung Ghyang, Newakot District, Nepal, have exfoliating bark, which is continually self-peeling. And the branches of the true fir, which grow between 11,000 and 12,000 feet on the same mountain, are strong enough to give the common langur, a large monkey, safe purchase for a good night’s sleep because they are simultaneously too limber to support the weight of the heavier clouded leopard, which hunts the monkeys at night for food. But whatever a branch is like, it is somehow synonymous with campfires.
Fire was my only constant companion in years bygone, as it was that of my boyhood heroes, the American Indian and the mountain man. My first fire was intensely spiritual and private, known only to me and to the silent forest. The wisp of fir smoke, the heat, the tiny licking flame, the crackling branches became part of my spirit—and still are.
Since the days of my youth, fire has warmed me during cold winter nights in interior Alaska and during chilly desert nights in North Africa. Fire has cooked my food in the jungle of northern India and in the Himalayas of Nepal. And it has lifted my spirit on days of seemingly endless rain and shrouding fog in the coastal mountains of western Oregon and Washington.
Each fire is a reflection of the past, of the dawn of humanity, when the first purposefully made fire united humans and branches in a cultural dance the world over, a dance to remove the darkness and its terror, to heat a protective shelter, to cook food, and to alter the landscape for hunting, gathering, agriculture, and war.
Then again, the notion of a branch or branching has found its way through language into our culture. We say, for example, that we are going to open a branch office or that we are branching out into other things. In this sense, a branch is seen as moving away from the trunk, from the collective, to broach the unknown, which is the very essence of the Creative Principle, exploration, and personal growth.
These are some of the things I think about each winter as I prune the fruit trees in my garden. Why do I think about these things? I focus on them because the health of a tree’s crown determines in large measure the health of its trunk, which is a great conduit of flowing energy that unites Heaven and Earth through the living being of a tree. And I want to keep my fruit trees and maple trees healthy, and myself along with them.
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser, 2006. All rights reserved.