Orchard April 2020

April. Early morning. As I walk up to the orchard, I feel the last of the night’s sharp chill on my face, while the sun warms the back of my neck. With the human world almost silenced by the lockdown, the delicate birdsong becomes more evident. Mainly I hear tits twittering in the hawthorn, punctuated by pigeons and the occasional caw of a crow. The jackdaws don’t seem to have woken up yet.

The meadow grass, after lying dormant all winter, has started the growth that will take it to thigh-high by late summer. If I look closely, I can see the leaves of newly germinated yellow rattle and birds foot trefoil. For now, it is short enough for the cowslips, thickly scattered under the fruit trees. They nod their flowerheads in the light breeze, from time to time bending lower as a bee visits them—alarmingly low if the visitor is a bumblebee. The beehive is in a sunny spot, so the bees are thoroughly awake, gathering round the hive entrance and flying off on nectar-gathering missions. My eye is caught by a bumblebee crawling into a joint in the stone wall, maybe to make a nest; and I wonder how it is it choses that opening over all the others.

We are in the middle of the sequence of blossoming. The apricot is long over, the plum trees are past their best, beginning to fade to grey; from time to time, clouds of petals blow off in the gusts of wind. Now is the time for the cherry and pears, both startling white with a delicate array of yellow stamen in the centre. The apple trees will blossom next, some are already showing the first glimmer of intense cerise in the buds. I watch as a great tit flies into the big old apple tree and flits from twig to twig, delicately picking aphids from the buds.

I feel an upswelling of gratitude. This small piece of land gives so much—fruit and vegetables, but more than that. It is a peaceful place that offers an intimacy with other forms of life. For while we had a big hand in creating this orchard—clearing the brambles, digging out the opportunistic plants and self-seeded ash saplings; choosing the fruit trees and meadow grass seed, planting with care and tending through the early years—we have learned to attend to and accept the teachings of the plants. I have pruned and trained the trees every year, working both to influence and respond to their natural habit. And the community of life here responds, as can be seen from the proliferating blossom, the bird and insect life.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass is a teaching about reciprocity.* She tell us the story of Skywoman, the foundation story of the original people of the Great Lakes. When Skywoman falls to Earth, clutching a bundle for fruits and seeds in her hand, there was nothing but deep, dark water for her landing. The geese broke her fall; but they could not support her for long, so they called a council of animals. All contributed: Turtle agreed to hold her on his great back; other animals, at great cost to themselves, dived into the depths to bring up mud from the bottom of the water to make land for her home. But the water was too deep, their work was in vain. Eventually, Muskrat, at the cost of his life, managed to bring one dab of mud to the surface. “Spread it on my back,” said Turtle. Skywoman did so and the began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. As she did the speck of mud grew and grew until the whole Earth was made: Turtle Island, as the land of North America is called by indigenous people. In a memorable phrase, Kimmerer points out that is was made in reciprocity: ‘Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude’.

The practices of reciprocity that Kimmerer writes about are reflected in contemporary thought. Philosopher of science Bruno Latour tells us that our world is a proliferation of ‘hybrids’, networks that are simultaneously ‘real, social and narrated’. In particular, nothing can be seen as either ‘nature’ or ‘culture’ but rather forms a seamless fabric of ‘nature-culture’. Biologist Lyn Margulis emphasized the importance of symbiosis in evolutionary thought. The Orchard is not wild nature; but neither is it completely a human construct. It is a hybrid; a symbiont; the outcome of reciprocity, not just between us and the trees, but between all the beings.

The challenge for a modern human is to learn how to genuinely partake in such reciprocity. Thinking systemically helps, understanding processes of self-regulation, seeing complex loops of feedback rather than simple cause and effect. But Kimmerer would take us further: she would want us to see the trees, the meadow grass and flowers as living persons; to see their fruit and flowers as gifts. Take only what you need. Ask permission before you harvest or prune or take anything. Always give a gift in return, maybe simply of gratitude. All these are ways of treating other beings as ‘nonhuman persons vested with awareness, intelligence, spirit’; all are tiny but essential steps toward imaging a reciprocal relationship with our living world.

Gratitude lies at the foundation of this. My wife Elizabeth and I often sit together in the Orchard and say to each other with some amazement, “Aren’t we lucky?” And when a clattering of jackdaws takes off from the suburban chimney stacks where they nest and flow overhead in a great display, it does indeed seem like a gift. And today, April 11, I peeled and cooked that last half dozen apples that I harvested in September and overwintered in the garage. Gratitude indeed.

* Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013. My review at Shiny New Books