The orchard was young and needed special care. My dad knew it all, but this was my first time pruning a tree. He had explained the basics over winter—how we prune to prevent trees from shading their own fruit and so we can spray for pests and diseases more effectively and evenly. But I didn’t yet know how or what to cut. I was interested to learn something new. With freezing nights behind us, and with longer, warmer days ahead, we set out to prune the orchard.
We carried stepladders on our shoulders, saws in our hands, and pruners blade-end-up in our back pockets. The dirt drive down which we walked marked the far edge of the orchard, with dormant spring trees to our right and vast, rolling, and untilled fields to our left. This was the first outside job of the spring, and it felt great to work again, especially after a long and particularly cold winter.
The window of opportunity to prune fruit trees in New England is quite short—too early and you’ll weaken their cold hardiness; too late and you’ll stunt the year’s crop. To catch it just right you need to keep a keen eye on the spring and how quickly it blows in.
“Imagine what your hand looks like when holding a giant peach,” my dad shared with his hand open in front of him as we walked. “That is what a freshly pruned peach tree should look like.”
We walked past the grapes and their cedar trellises, the pears and plums that we had cuffed the fall before, and out beyond the cherries still too young to bear fruit. Our breaths puffed clouds of white into damp, still air as we made our way to the peaches at the edge of the farm. My feet twisted on rocks and slipped into woodchuck holes as I kept up with his fast pace.
The soil was soft underfoot, not muddy like it had been the week before. Winter’s frost had gone out and spring’s melt drained away. Walking past the few last rows of apples, my dad noted the progress of several varieties for which he was particularly excited. “Those are the Northern Spies over there,” he said as if I could possibly tell one leafless apple tree from another. “And over there are the Cortlands. They’re looking great!” I was just happy I could tell the dead-looking apples apart from the dead-looking plums. A naked orchard on a grey March day isn’t exactly the stuff of magazines. “Yeah,” I replied. “Everything looks great, really great.”
We set up at the first tree, on the west end of the first row of peaches. Last year’s grass and clover lay brown and matted underfoot while eagles screeched high overhead. Dead milkweed and asters stood brittle and tall, rising up through tufts of tall grass that the mower had missed back in the fall. The sun was weak, but warm, and the wind was cool—the way both tend to be in March.
My dad snapped open his ladder and placed it up near the first tree. He set his tools on top and then helped me do the same by setting me up next to him. “Dad?” I asked, my voice cracking. “How long do you think this will take?” “Let’s just take it one tree at a time,” he answered. Looking down the row, and across to several others, I saw hundreds of trees that needed our care. “Good idea,” I replied with uninspired tones.
With clippers in-hand, he stepped up onto his stool and stood only inches from the tree. They were dwarf peaches and bred to be short with high yields, unlike our tall and scraggly trees from generations that preceded us. New-fashioned and top-of-the-line, they were my dad’s vision for the future of the farm and for me.
His first couple snips were deliberate, testing, and surprisingly loud in the quiet orchard. He held a cut piece between his thumb and two fingers and bent it a bit, testing for softness and flex. He rubbed the cut end with his fingertips and then brought his nose down close to smell. Then he wrapped his other hand around the branch from which he had just cut the small piece. He grabbed it with his fist and tried to bend it right and then left. Nothing. It didn’t budge a bit. The young and tender growth was gone and out of the way while the established branch was left to bud and bear fruit with strength.
I watched as he cleared the first tree. Snipping and clipping so fast I could barely match the sound to each action I saw. Clip, clip, clip, and snip, snip, snip—each noise amplified by damp air on a near silent day.
Without words of instruction, I stepped up onto my ladder and reached inside among the tree’s bare limbs. A few thin branches grew rosy-brown and straight up from thicker, greyer, and older wood. They bent a bit with each touch and felt softer than the others. Snip. I cut the first one off and tossed it behind me. Snip. I cut off another and then did the same as he did, by testing for softness and flex and feeling its freshly cut end. I brought it to my nose and smelled the cut as he had done. It smelled sweet, peach-like and alive. Not too much (certainly not like a peach), but enough to know it was a fruit tree, alive and waking from winter. Its center was green, with a wide, golden-brown ring and reddish bark that frayed at the cut. I tossed it behind me.
After a few minutes of snipping and clipping, we finished the tree. He stepped down form his ladder and then back a few feet. With his hand held out and open in front of him, he looked at the tree and smiled. “There,” he said. “Good job, pal—just like holding a giant peach.” I jumped down, walked to his side, and looked at the tree with great doubt, but he was right. Its biggest branches were thick and grew out and upward like fingers from a hand. Inside them it was open, airy, and a breeze could blow freely and cleanly through—perfect for peaches to ripen in sun and right on the tree.
We pruned for hours, leapfrogging from tree to tree. I pruned one to his three. He was fast and thorough and never missed a branch. For every one of my careful cuts, I heard dozens of quick snips from my dad down the row. The noise was hypnotic, relaxing, and sounded simultaneously near and far. Orchards can do that with noise; they play tricks, carrying sound up and down rows. Clip, clip, clip, and snip, snip, snip…
The morning wore on and we pruned dozens of trees. A rhythm and pattern developed in my work and with each I grew quicker. I looked for the thin, the red, and the shinier young limbs. I reached in with pruners for the soft red wood and grabbed my small saw for the thicker, harder growth. Moving the outer branches and peering inside, I searched for shiny, speckled reds and smooth, perfect browns among older, darker, nubby greys.
We left a few of the fairer young branches to grow and hold fruit in the future, and we cut one or two thicker old limbs so the trees wouldn’t split in years to come. Like reading a timeline, the branches told stories of weather, growth, and what the future may be. It was my first day pruning and already I had learned a ton.
It was hard work and my hands grew tired and sore. My fingers were cold and weak from gripping and snipping in the cool, damp air. Each step up the ladder was more labored than the last. My calves were tight and tired, sore and burning. I needed a break. I stepped down and my boots squeaked on the wet metal steps. The brown grass and clover glistened and my tools were wet and shining clean. I was so focused on my work that I hadn’t noticed an east breeze blow in with mist and fog.
The eagles were gone from overhead and rain tapped softly on the hedgerow down the drive. I walked down the row to my dad, to check on him, and to see about heading back to the house for a hot cup of coffee and sweet snack.
Nearly blind without super thick lenses, his eyes often gave him more trouble than they were worth. He couldn’t drive at night (and shouldn’t in the day either) and he never recognized a face from farther than ten feet. He read more than most, but with a magnifying glass and that which he read nearly pressed to his nose. He felt things, smelled and tasted them, and took care to see with all senses.
With his peach trees he did the same—feeling each branch and smelling and tasting the wood as he cut. He stood on the ground and reached above his head. With one hand he felt each branch, junction, and growth, and with the other he clipped, snipped and sawed. Faster than before, he pruned away young branches and shaped his tree for years to come. It was incredible. He didn’t even look at the tree. He just reached up, felt and cut. That which took me careful peering and checking, he did in seconds, and without even looking.
He was fast, really fast, and I wanted to be too. I stood on the other side of his tree, in the cool mist and wet grass, and touched the wood within reach. I grabbed a red twiggy branch and bent it in my hand while feeling the firm, hard wood from which it grew. The spot to cut became clear. Then I ran my hand down a primary branch and to the tree’s trunk, feeling the whole way small branches, nubs, and gnarly scars from splits and cracks. I closed my eyes and did both again, rubbing, feeling, and seeing in my mind that which I saw with my eyes just seconds before.
Then I reached behind and pulled pruners from my back pocket. Blade-end-up, I grabbed carefully with closed eyes. I reached them into the tree while feeling the branches with my other hand. Snip. I cut the twiggy branch at its base and right at the hard wood. Then I reached deeper into the tree and felt for the gash I had seen moments before. Snip. I cut off another young branch—a new one that I had missed with eyes open.
“How’s it goin’, pal?” he asked through the tree. “You about ready for a break?” Snip. I cut off another small branch and threw it behind me. “Sure,” I replied as if I hadn’t already thought of it, “Good idea. Just let me finish up this side of the tree.” With eyes closed, I felt with my hands for limbs and soft wood and I cleared the tree as he had done all morning. The connection to the tree, to my dad, was unreal. My senses exploded as if riding a bike for the very first time. I touched and felt, and clipped and snipped. I was with the tree—reading it, feeling it, and understanding it more than my eyes alone would allow. No longer just an image, it bent soft, stood firm, and felt rough and bumpy, smooth and slick. Each nick was a story and each smooth strip told of new growth. Clip, clip, clip, and snip, snip, snip… Before I knew it I was done.
The sky hung low and dark and the East breeze grew damper, cooler, and a little bit steadier. Crows cawed from the field ahead, hopping and jumping and pecking for seeds and grub. It was a day that if viewed from inside would appear colder and wetter than it was. From our vantage, though, it was peaceful and mild, waking and hopeful. At the tail end of winter, even a crow in dead grass can lift weary spirits.
We packed our ladders and tools and walked back up the row to the drive on the west end of the orchard and along the edge of the fields. My boots had soaked through and my feet squished wet with each step in the grass. My dad walked beside me, slower than before and keeping pace with me.
The orchard to our left blocked the east wind that had chilled us moments before. Our spirits were high from a job done well and from a vision toward which we worked. “These Galas and Jonamacs over here,” he said while pointing to a row of trees. “These will be the first apples ready in early September. Then the Empires and Honeycrisps over there. We’ll have apples coming ripe all season long.”
That was thirty years ago and today that orchard is gone, lost to a story I’ll tell another time. Those apples never ripened the way we had planned, and my dad's peaches were knocked down at the roots. But that doesn’t matter much because my memories remain. With his peaches he showed me to close my eyes and see the natural world, to reach out and feel it and be with it as much as I can. I love him for that. And with his young orchard he showed me to work toward my dreams, to overcome hardships that stand in my way, and to persevere like the Yankees we are. I love him for that, too.
My dad, inspecting his newest, new orchard in Spring 2014. Decades have passed and still he keeps going—planting and pruning and dreaming. (His peaches are delicious, by the way).