Sometimes the trees can get too tall. They shoot up straight as if to poke the sun. Sometimes they get too green. They wrestle leaves into every clear space, strangling their own fruit. Sometimes they bear too much, globes weighing the branches until they break.
You pretend it’s someone else’s job to care for it, but all along you’ve known the orchard was also yours. You still want to be the child, even though you know they are tired, even though you know it’s your turn, even though you’re the only one who can do it now.
Under the pear tree, the kittens pounce on fireflies and paw at rolling apples. Loppers lean against a trunk, a saw lies on the grass, and a pair of clippers on the ladder shelf. The branches you have cut are black with death and, at first, the trees look bare.
Diseased, broken, or dead: those branches were the easiest to remove. It’s the young ones that break your heart. You must remove those that grow inward and make the tree too dark. Take the ones that grow downward, for they will not support fruit when it comes. Cut the branches that cross others, sowing disorder and conflict.
You must not be too harsh, not too delicate. You must not take too much, not too little. You must not think only of the fruit soon to be in your hand, your pie, your saucepan. You must think of next fall and the next fall and two dozen falls from today.
Don’t think you’re being kind to use a soft blade. Sharp cuts are easier to heal. Don’t think you’re being gentle by leaving some of the branch — you must take it all, for stumps invite rot and parasites.
When you have done the work, the dead wood must be gathered and cleared away. The children won’t want to help. Like you once, they just want to be free. But they need to feel the pull of their muscles and the taste of their sweat. It would be good for them to feel the rhythm and reciprocity of nature’s partnership.
If your life is to be fruitful, you cannot let your orchard go, simply because it will without any help from you. You must be a steward, deciding what lives and what dies.
Wind must be able to rush through your trees, blowing away that which festers and stagnates. Sunlight must be able to reach the inner places, drying the rain and curing the ills.
If your life is to be fruitful, you must visit your orchard in all seasons, learning the shape and habit of each tree, noticing what grows and what aches.
Above all, you must be a friend. When you walk through your orchard, listen more than you speak. Notice the tiniest unfurlings of beauty and grace. Feel how sacred the world is when you see, and the seen senses your gaze.
Rain-damp hair on the pillow. Warm knees that have traversed the sidewalks to and from the elementary school twice today. The cicadas are churning the air with dazzle, a mass seduction outside my window.
One hour after midday: this is when I rest my bones, my eyes, my overworld persona, and sink into oblivion — even just for a swirl. Soon it will be time to go back to the school, buy the bread, pick up the car, prepare another dinner, play a board game — but now I let myself pool.
The cat meows at the door. “You want to be with me?” I think as I open the door, as if there is no one else, and here — here is the single soul.
The cat kneads, purring and pressing my muscles with his paws. Does he think I’m his mother, his mate … both?
The silver shimmer of cicada song rises and falls like waves. It spills as soon as I try to collect it.
When I wake past 2:00, my dreams evaporate as I try to fix them on a page. Before I brew the afternoon coffee, I bury my nose in the cat’s jowl and drink deep of his fur.
Thank you for loving me. Thank you for not caring whether I win or lose. Thank you for keeping an eye on me, even when you are sleeping.
In early June, small fruits and the first greens of the garden are overflowing at the farm stand, in the produce aisles, and around our garden — blueberries, strawberries, rhubarb. Snap peas, lettuce, and kale. Arugula so mature it fades right after it’s cut. Soon it will be time to pick the peaches and blackberries that are blushing in the sun.
With long leather gloves, I wrap climbing roses around the arbor. Plastic water guns are slung on the driveway, while the kids climb ladders to pick cherries. Tart and translucent with a shade of bitterness, perfect for folding inside a deep buttery crust.
The best way to pit a cherry is to wedge a spoon into where it was separated from the tree and scoop out the heart. My helper Luke wanders off and leaves me alone with my work.
I feel content when I’m making a pie. Pressing the cracked ball of pastry dough with a rolling pin, it expands into round puffs. A cloud of cosmic dust spreading on the counter.
Half a cup of sugar, a teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, and some cornstarch so the juice will globe around the fruit.
“The universe is expanding faster than a spaceship can go and it’s getting faster and faster,” Luke told me the other day as I dropped him off to one of his last days of 5th grade.
Over and under, I weave thick strips of salty dough into a framework that melts in the warmth of my hands.
When the pie is in the oven, it’s time to get lunch on the table. Looking at the bounty in the fridge, I love seeing what must be eaten, what can wait, what needs rescuing.
The tomatoes are on the edge, so I throw a few moldy ones in the compost bin, then toss the rest in oil and salt and roast them along with the pie. Mint green kohlrabi gets cleaned and cut into half moons for an appetizer.
The strawberries are turning wine-red, so I throw them in a pot with some rhubarb and sugar to make a sauce for ice cream when all the pie is gone.
Arugula is washed and tossed with matchstick carrots, lemon balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, and piled on 6 plates. And the honeydew can be sliced and arranged on a platter, making room in the fridge.
As I set down paper-thin slices of coppa and a wedge of caciotta sent via DHL from Milan, the oven begins to sigh the curled perfume of fruit pectin and flour.
When the pie is done, we’ll go look for camping equipment. Maybe Luke will want to join Scouts again. My husband used to camp in the summers on the beaches of Greece. “I don’t know how to set up a tent,” Luke grumbles, and Mark predicts, “We’re going to get lost a thousand times.” Diana grimaces and says, “I have to go camping too?”
Maybe the plan won’t work, maybe the sleeping bags will gather guilty dust in our garage, but I can picture a new version of our family unfolding as our daughters leave the nest. With just a quarter turn of the kaleidoscope, I see the 5 of us disappearing into a wilderness. I wouldn’t mind getting lost.
The depth of my life takes place, not on billboards or headlines, concert halls or stadiums, but in the sorting of hand-me-downs and the soothing of a child. Moments that add up to a life neither extraordinary nor ordinary, but one that keeps circling deeper into something I do not know how to name.
When I’m tending roses or children, I’m not looking in the mirror, deciding that something is missing. When I’m tending, I’m not thinking, Is this important?
This is uncomplicated, this is true. This is a pie coming out of the oven, red syrup bubbling over the lattice crust, smelling of flowers and rain.
My mother always wore gardening gloves, even when she drove a hand spade into the soft suburban ground to nestle her purple hyacinth bulbs.
But I’m different. I don’t care that my knuckles get nicked or that my nails are ringed with half-moons of dirt. I want to make contact with the minerals and the stems, no formalities needed.
When the seasons collided in late winter and it was summer for a day, I barreled into the garden and raked and clipped and swept and gathered all the crumpled leaves, the flower balls, and slanted twigs. They had kept the ankles of the plants warm, but now they were wool socks on a muggy day.
After I hauled the remains to the botanical cemetery behind the garage, the backs of my hands were alive with red scratches and my fingers were christened with a dusting of glimmery dirt.
But by afternoon a gash on my palm ached. That night I scrubbed out the dirt with a bar of Ivory, just as my mom would ward off poison ivy with Fels-Naptha laundry soap.
Maybe it needed antibiotics, I thought, dabbing some on and going to bed with a bandage.
The next day, the pink opening called to me with the only voice it had. I soaked it in warm water again, but at the deepest part, a speck remained. With a pair of tweezers and eyes sharper than mine, my son extracted an infinitesimal thorn.
I’ve never thought of myself as a warrior. Swords are for killing and shields are for raising barriers. But don’t we hurt each other every day without even trying? Don’t lovers protect themselves from what their bodies want to conceive? Danger comes in equal measure as beauty.
Nature has boundaries, and so must you. Coax the climbing roses, claw out the river stones, press the seeds in deep, but take care. Protect yourself so love can last.
“The whole reason that there are so many dandelions is because of the wish thing,” Mark, 12, tells me. Diana, 6, gets off her bike, lets it thunk to the ground, and bends down to pick two blowballs from a patch of grass — one for me, one for her brother.
“Thank you,” I say, and look with admiration and repulsion at this perfect sphere, this geodesic dome built of fluff, the bane of gardeners everywhere. I blow mine, feeling like a vandal, wishing the seeds will float to the street, not to innocent yards behind me.
When I try to pull one up in my garden, gathering all its arms and legs and yanking it by the neck, its body remains in the earth and soon will grow a new head like some kind of mythological monster.
Mostly I’ve given up, now just popping off the flower heads when they’re young and yellow and leaving the rest, as if accepting a colony of stray cats as long as they don’t make babies.
Whose wish is growing between the bricks by the Lilies of the Valley? Who planted the desire in between the sidewalk and our front gate?
Are the dandelions in our gravel driveway proof that my children had dreams? And I, thinking only of neatness and order, behead them on my way to accomplishing something else. Sometimes I stuff the heads in my pocket, for lack of a place to dispose of them, then find them again, drawn up and clean, in a freshly laundered pair of jeans.
They don’t want to be yanked out of the earth. They do everything they can to stay anchored there, shooting their tap roots down like arrows, saying ‘I belong here!’ They could survive the worst drought, flood, or heat wave, when the basil I coddle in a pampered plot will die if not offered a drink of water on a hot day.
Is it because those untold wishes are more tenacious than anything you can buy or plan? My mom used to drop her wedding ring around a candle on her birthday cake before blowing out the flames to make her wish come true.
Today Diana asked if she could pick our first cherry tomato, the only one this season that has made the journey from yellow star to rosy globe while escaping the catbird’s eye.
She cradles it in her hand and says, “Let’s do a ‘sermony’ or whatever you call it,” and I know she means the way we take the garden’s first fruit, a single blackberry or strawberry or sugar snap pea, and place it on a sliver plate until dinnertime when everyone is seated, and after presenting the specimen, slice it into as many sections as people around the table, placing the morsel on our tongues, tasting all at once the watering, the weeding, the coaxing, the staking, the shooing, the clearing, the sunlight, the rain, the worms, and the wishing.
“Feel it,” Diana holds out the little ball. It’s plump and firm, round and warm.
“It’s like a wedding ring,” she says and runs inside, climbs onto the hutch and reaches up to get a small white bowl, placing the orange globe in the center by itself, like a ring of gold that seals a pact of love.
Later this morning Luke will celebrate his 10th birthday with one friend, one present, one pizza, and one scoop of salted caramel gelato in a paper cup. No candle, perhaps because of that article in the newspaper that asked whether it was dangerous to blow germs all over a dessert.
He will be upstairs putting together the Star Wars Black Ace imperial Lego spaceship he just unwrapped when his dad will come home from work, take the ragged mass of keys out of his pocket and his wedding ring off his finger, and drop them, Ching-a-ling!, into the silver tray on the counter, and then pop the single cherry tomato in the little white bowl into his mouth.
There is no ceremony when we blow off the globe of downy hair from a dandelion puffball until the seedhead is completely bald, plucked and pock-marked like an unfeathered chicken. No ceremony except for the long in-breath and the closing of eyes and the fantasy spinning into color. No ceremony except for the parachute seeds dispersed into the wind, onto the rolling lawns and sidewalk cracks, over the blue spruce hedges and under buckling blacktop driveways. Secret wishes that won’t let go.