Tuesday, January 25, 2022

On Pruning

I love pruning. Scott asked me why I love it so much. I told him that it is very satisfying to cut out branches that weaken the tree. When I prune, I think about how each branch produced and where I saw signs of illness the previous season, and I cut according to the plant's history. I tried to explain that when I prune, I have the past picture of the tree, the current picture of the tree, and a beautiful, healthy, and fruitful picture of the tree that I want it to be in my head. And that future picture isn't just for the year, it is for years and years to come. I get to imagine the tree that will be for a lifetime. The cuts I make literally shape its future. This is even more fun with the apples and pears that I am growing as espaliers against our north fence. Those trees take strategy. 

The first tree I remember pruning was a young olive tree my parents asked me to prune in the front yard of our house in the central valley. I couldn't tell you how old I was, other than somewhere between ten and fifteen. Olive trees in all stages are beautiful. When they are young, their branches are smooth and pale gray, echoing the silver backs of their gray-green leaves. The young tips of branches are almost white. As they age, they bulk up and become wise in their dark bumps and burls. But I didn't understand the future tree when I pruned that tree. I could only see the tree of now, and I didn't do a good job. I just kept cutting. I kept looking at the pale gray branches and delighted in their lovely shape at that moment. I focused on the branches, not the tree. When I was done, the tree was naked and sad, and though my parents didn't complain, I could tell that they didn't love the job I did.

Pruning olive trees (pruning any trees, really) is so important that Italy holds olive tree pruning contests. Looking at this article about the winners of the 2016 contest makes me marvel at how young some of them were. How could they hold all those ages of the tree in their head as they pruned? A few years ago, I read an article about a man who prunes ancient olive trees on Lake Garda, and I've been thinking about it ever since. The article profiles Sergio Cozzaglio, an olive pruner and esteemed olive oil maker. In his work on the trees of Lake Garda among the 2000-year-old ruins of a Roman estate, he's discovered several scraggly plants that weren't originally identifiable. The article's author asked him if one of those trees could be as old as the ruins: 

“Not this exact tree,” he said. “There was a great frost here in the early 18th century. Even the lake froze. Everything died.” But the roots of olive trees, Cozzaglio pointed out, are extremely resistant to cold, which means they can send up new shoots even after the wood has died. It was well-known that the Romans kept olive trees on their rural estates, using the oil to fill lamps, soften their skin, and feed the household. The Villa Romana variety’s genetic profile suggested we were looking at a descendant of trees that stood here in the first century. [...]

Cozzaglio had turned his back to me, and was dreamily caressing the branch of a small tree with some tiny olives on its lower branches. “I don’t know what variety this is,” he said. “Six years ago, when I discovered it, it was a bush, it was nothing.” After several seasons of careful tending, it had started to flower and bear fruit. “Now it’s grown into a tree. This is the part of my work I love. To help give birth to a plant.” 

Cozzaglio is ensuring the past makes it to the future. 

I wonder who will someday place a hand on a sturdy horizontal branch of one of my pear trees. Will that person wonder about the gardener who chose to set that branch at that angle? Will that person wonder about the gardener who anticipated each blossom and hoped for each fruit? Will that person prune for the future?

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