Planting Fruit Trees is Not for Nomads
– Andy Wade –
A Saying from the Desert Fathers
It was said about Abba John the Little that he went away to an old Theban in Scetis who lived in the desert. Once his Abba took a piece of dry wood, planted it, and said to him: Water it every day with a bottle of water until it bears fruit. The water, however, was so far away from there that John had to go out late in the evening and come back the next morning. Three years later, the tree came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and brought it to the church, and said to the brothers: Take and eat the fruit of obedience. Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers, Yushi Nomura
Planting fruit trees is not for nomads
It takes time and patience to bear fruit. In redesigning our front yard to be more inclusive, more community oriented, I talked to our neighbor, Gary, about planting an espalier apple tree where we once had roses between our yards. I told him they might encroach a bit over the property line once mature, but that he and his wife were more than welcome to pick their fruit. His response? “Let’s get two – I’ll pay half!”
Gary and his wife, Sandy, moved to Hood River from Texas just a year ago. I explained to him that apple trees take time to grow. In fact, the first year we’d have to pluck the blossoms from the trees so the energy would go into root development. The following year we’d have to remove almost all the apples to continue to strengthen the young trees. By the third year we would probably be able to harvest a dozen or so apples from each tree, and by the fourth year we should have a bountiful harvest.
Gary was not deterred. “We’re not going anywhere!” he proclaimed. To be honest, a year earlier I could not have said the same thing. I really like our yard and have worked hard to transform it from orchard grass to garden, but our house is dark, only having one window on the south side. But God has planted us here, in this community, in this neighborhood. We know our neighbors and frequently share food, advice, and a helping hand.
When we moved in five years ago we planted blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. These fruits also take time to really flourish. Last year our harvest of raspberries was phenomenal! This year we look forward to an abundance of blueberries and strawberries as well. But it’s taken time. It’s taken investment into the soil. It’s taken patience. Enjoying the fruits of the harvest, as Abba John exemplifies, requires obedience over the long haul.
It’s rare to move into a location where the soil has been well cared for, carefully nurtured over time so that it is able to sustain a healthy garden. Even with annual vegetables like lettuce, kale, broccoli, and turnips, poor soil produces poor results. Good gardens, not just fruit trees, take time. I’ve been writing a lot about my journey in the garden, in this place, and how God is teaching me about faithfulness though my garden. As God nurtures the soil of my heart, loosening soil compacted by unrealistic expectations and a propensity to move on quickly to new things, the roots of my spiritual life have flourished. But there’s more to the lesson.
Nomads in the Neighborhood
While people in the USA change homes less today than in the 1970s, we still, on average, move 12 times in our lifetime. Three quarters of the US population moves every five years. Like fruit bearing, it takes time to build relationships. And like gardening, relationships take intentionality and tending. In our own little neighborhood we seem to have new “For Sale” signs going up every few weeks. There are many reasons people move, but each time it feels a bit like someone came in and dug up a beautiful tree, leaving behind an empty hole.
Perhaps this is what changed my heart about moving. Or maybe it was all the time invested in the garden. Gary and Sandy certainly played a role – immediately rooting in the neighborhood and larger community and actively cultivating friendships. Also impacting my heart were Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, and the many stories and examples from Paul Sparks, Tim Sorens, and The Parish Collective (check out their new book with Dwight Friesen, The New Parish).
The fact is, the longer we stay in a place, the more difficult it is to leave. Roots have gone down deep into the earth, intertwined with the roots of others. No wonder it’s painful when a long-time neighbor moves. When they’re uprooted, our own roots are disturbed, even damaged in the process. Like the tree dependent on the old monk to deliver water every day, we too become dependent on one another. Something beautiful is growing in this garden we call neighborhood, and the health of its fruit is reflected in the health of our relationships with one another.
Rooted and Linked
That’s the idea behind The Parish Collective. I won’t go into detail here, but briefly the concept is that we need both to live deeply into place – where we live – building relationships, celebrations, mutuality, community, and we need to link with other communities that are committed to doing the same, creating a support network for encouragement, ideas, and a deeper sense of connectedness and purpose beyond ourselves.
Rooted and linked. These two elements go hand in hand in a holistic Christian life. It seems that our society has much preferred linking over rootedness. Linking can be accomplished as an individual. It doesn’t necessarily require us to settle down and settle into a place. Linking can also become a form of name-dropping, knowing all kinds of people all over the place, but never being fully present or accountable to a community. No, this is not the linking The Parish Collective advocates. Still, without being rooted in a neighborhood, a community, it’s all too easy to let linking become a substitute for deep relationships where mutuality and substance can be nurtured and celebrated.
Planting and Growing
So this year we planted espalier apple trees with our neighbors. We did it together and we did it rather subversively, planting them right on the property line. It’s exciting, this commitment to friendship and to place. Over the years, as the trees grow and thrive, I look forward to allowing my own roots to stretch more deeply into this place I call home. I look forward to discovering with my neighbors new ways to overthrow the status quo of up-rootedness and self-sufficiency. And I look forward to a feast of abundant fruits lovingly nurtured, over time, by the tenacity of friendship.
How about you? What kind of tree are you planting?