I studied the backyard for weeks. Staring down from the rough splintered deck, I imagined the yard as I wished it to become. I considered the view from inside the house: the kitchen sink, the former grow room/someday writing room. I measured and remeasured. As soon as I settled on “the spot” our friend would dig up a dwarf apple tree from his own backyard and replant it in ours as a housewarming gift. The perfect gift, as on a quarter of an acre surrounded by trees and shrubs, there was not one fruit tree.
We dug the hole where I was sure I’d have the best view of the apple tree, and where it would get enough water and sun without too much help from me. We did more digging once the tree arrived, to give the roots the same width below ground as the branches had above. It took five of us to get the work of replanting done in an hour or two. The late winter soil was already mud and didn’t need much water, so we added a bag or two of mulch to the soil and filled it in around the tree. Satisfied with the spot, I hoped that in a few years or so our apple tree would bear bountiful crops of apples to eat and make applesauce and cider and pie. By now it should have been strong enough to climb.
But our tree has had six years of spreading roots and branches and bearing no fruit.
I had not accounted for the rapidly expanding canopy of green that now shadows the southeast corner of my yard. I can see it now through my bedroom window where I sit on my bed leaning against the wall to type.
It must be moved.
Established trees are not easy to move
I might have gone on another decade in blissful ignorance to the plight of our tree, but in this year at home, I’ve started noticing things like trees in the wrong place. It wasn’t until my neighbor put her house on the market that I fully realized the difference a few yards would have made both for my tree and her view. I swiped through the images on their real estate listing and there it was, plain as day, through their kitchen window; I could almost hear the angelic “ah ahhh ahhh” chorus as the sun illuminated the very spot where I should have planted our apple tree. As big as it is now, it would have covered a multitude of sins (every piece of clothing the dog has dragged into the yard, every unsightly project stored under the deck).
Established trees are not easy to move—aside from their heft, it’s a shock to their system. Even in the marine climate of the Puget Sound, where folks joke you could plant a dead stick in the ground and it would eventually sprout, moving a tree of this size is no small thing. Now the tree has six years’ growth, six years of spreading aerial branches and a subterranean root system of feeders. If it survives another relocation, it might be six more years before we ever see apples. Who knows if we’ll even be living in this house then. But I know it can’t be helped. If we ever want this tree to ever produce apples, it needs some sun.
I feel this setback keenly. We are already old for first-time homebuyers. And I feel the permanence of rookie mistakes. You really can’t afford to make too many of those with trees. It takes so long for them to grow.
Now I am studying this replanting business so I can spare my tree from too much trauma—and in hopes of shortening the time to real fruit. I’ve watched one master gardener YouTube video after another about the day-or days-long (depending on the size of the tree) replanting process. First, the gardener digs a large ring around the tree—starting perpendicular to the end of the longest branches. Then, taking her time with a spade and shovel, she gently exposes the root system to find the delicate veiny ends. My neck stiffens in sympathy for the physical demand of the painstaking care she takes to comb the soil away from the roots with a pitchfork.
When she replants the tree in the new hole, she prunes back the aerial branches and explains it is necessary to divert energy into the fragile roots to encourage them to re-establish themselves in their new home (there go my hopes of a climbing tree any time soon). The gardener adds compost soil and mulch around the roots in the new hole, admonishing viewers to take care not to leave pockets where water can be trapped underground and create root rot. And finally, the instruction to take extra care of the relocated tree through the first year after the move so that it can establish itself: fertilize, give it more water. Tend it.
So much depends on my being right.
I do love gardening, which is the saving grace of this project. Solitary work in the soil and among growing things lends itself to contemplation. In this yard, I have been working through a sometimes debilitating perfectionism. And in my backyard, surrounded by decisions, I ponder regrets of the done and the undone—which is good, because it seems this halfway time of life is prime rethink time. Appletree roots are easy compared to the roots of myself I’m digging up.
We’re so sure about how our parents should do things/have done things until our children challenge us and give us a run for our money. A little life experience, a little exposure to other ways of doing things, and before we know it, we’re rethinking. We’re growing up, too, along with our kids.
What seemed so critical to raising good kids at first, maybe is not so much now—the oldest had real oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, the youngest gets Captain Crunch. “Our minds are not infinite,” wrote Dorothy L Sayers, “and as the volume of the world’s knowledge increases, we tend more and more to confine ourselves…” It’s easy to say, “well, I don’t know everything” and dismiss our discomfort with the idea. You learn over spaghetti and Caesar salad that Pluto is not a planet, and it’s all downhill from there—a child becomes their own person, a belief is challenged, we are asked to take a side. A crisis hits and the questions erode what we once held so tightly.
Am I not allowed to be certain of anything? If I’m wrong, the dominoes will fall. I’m the parent, I can’t change my mind. I’m the pastor. The governor. I cannot be wrong because so much depends on my being right. And out come the defenses.
It seems the need to be right is woven into our humanity. Some of us feel this need more than others. Whether by nature or nurture, we need to be right. We work hard to be sure of our studied stance. We’ve been educated in it, received honors. We’re invested. We’ve staked our reputation on it, established a ministry, written a book, planted a tree. It’s practically dogma.
If I’ve been wrong? If I change my mind? What happens to all those years I’ve devoted?
The Call to Consider Something Again
The gospels are full of Jesus telling people to think again: “You’ve heard it said . . . but I say to you”—what was at the root of their resistance, their anger, their backlash? Pride. We have built an entire religious system on this and you are challenging it. We’ve been doing it this way for centuries! Their credentials notwithstanding, Jesus says: reconsider, reexamine, think again! Prayer, money, neighbors, sinners, even the Messiah.
The apostle Paul, who did a great deal of humble rethinking, wrote in 1 Corinthians 8:2, “Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.” And then James revisits it all again: rethink religion, worship. Rethink the way you are treating people who show up for church. Lament, mourn, and weep over your failure to love, to control your tongue, to live out the truth you read in scripture. It’s like the student loans aren’t even paid off before we are challenged to rethink our education. And James, always so practical, shows us what all the work is for: wisdom from heaven is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere—“a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Just like Jesus’s audience, our pride can keep us from following the call to consider something again. Our natural inclinations lean toward comfort making any act of humility a difficult one. It’s uncomfortable to dig around our tree of knowledge, of life. Rethinking big things may leave us sifting through the soil looking for the roots of truth in messy discomfort until our body aches. The process may take longer than expected, requiring us to step back and let wisdom have time to work. We will say “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” or even “I’m rethinking this, let me get back to you in a year or so,” to the very people who expect us to have answers. We may end up having to replant relationships and pray for new fruit, or seed new ones altogether. Each question shared and uncertainty unearthed requires a willingness to be seen as weak, but to persevere anyway knowing that finding God’s way leads to life one way or another.
As I research this business of moving a tree, I’ve discovered people move mature trees all the time, even in the best gardens, planned out by master gardeners. I am by no means the first to rethink the apple tree, just as in the scope of time and history I am not the first to rethink systems, philosophies, theologies. With both, a humble willingness to rethink may bring a fruitless tree new life. As for my beloved apple tree, patience, perhaps the most difficult characteristic of humility, is required. As much as I want to act right now on my new knowledge, my change of mind, the kindest thing for my tree – and for me—is to wait until winter.
Cover image by Nathan Hulsey.