Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life. – Herman Hesse
Several years ago we spent an autumn season in the orchard region just outside of Melbourne. I was in between creative projects and feeling the need to do something more dynamic with my energy than sitting at the computer sending and receiving emails, so I followed an impulse to a local biodynamic farm and got a job picking apples during the last six weeks of harvest.
The notion was quite romantic initially… I’d spend my days wandering the orchard rows connecting with my Muse, and my evenings writing to my heart’s content. The first few days were pretty exciting – driving tractors, climbing trees, embracing the daily challenge of filling three big apple crates with 2,000 apples each before sunset. But by day four… I’m pretty sure I hated it. With bruised grooves in each shoulder from my apple pouch and carpel tunnel in my wrists from twist-pulling Fuji’s all day, I hadn’t had the energy to open my laptop once, much less to write anything of value. I was starting to wonder if I was wasting my time – ‘valuable time’ I was telling myself, that I could be channeling into any number of potentially exciting projects. Here I was, slaving away for a fraction of my normal fee, getting pounded by the days and by the foreman, who had a way of applying subtle pressure to the pace of my picking that made me feel, well, inept. I’d be out there working my way up the rows, soaking wet with morning dew, and he’d stop by on his motorcycle, look into the bins and just kind of shake his head. He wouldn’t say much, but what his eyes were speaking was, “Really? This is all you got?!”
Embracing the challenge of filling three big apple crates
By week two I was getting faster, but my restlessness was growing. I was still finding myself too exhausted to be creatively useful in the evenings (shower-food-sleep was the pattern, waking just in time to throw on my overalls and get back out there the next morning) and on top of that, I had missed several key business calls and meeting invitations while being stuck up the ladder with a pouch full of Red Delicious. In two short weeks, this 40-acre property of fertile soil and thriving harvest had gone from poetically beautiful to overbearing, overwhelming and almost oppressive. So many apples… so many fricken apples. How would we ever get through them all?
By the end of week three I was starting to seriously consider pulling the escape hatch… That’s when George arrived.
George was a tall, thin Chinese man. I don’t know how old he was but I would guess mid-fifties. He had run a successful importing business for many years but recently let it go to be with and look after his parents for a while. Somehow he found the orchard and had decided to drive 90-minutes each way across city traffic to be there picking each day. I was having a hard time dragging myself out of bed to make the ten-minute drive, so I wondered how long George would last. He was a quiet man and we didn’t talk much for the first few days, but one thing I noticed straight away – which admittedly gave me some comfort at the time – was that he was a much slower picker than me. I was about half as fast as the foreman, and George… well George was about half as fast as me. Within a few days, the silent glares I’d been receiving from the foreman, started manifesting into snide remarks in George’s direction.
But the days were getting shorter and they needed the help, so as a couple of slow, misfit pickers, we were partnered up to work the same section of the orchard each day, sharing the harvest. Knowing that I would now have to pick even faster in order to make up for George if we were going to make our daily quota (a concept that George didn’t seem to understand) I found myself getting stressed and almost a bit resentful of my new partner. But a few days into our partnership, during our first lunch together, all of this changed.
After searching for a spot of high ground to check my phone messages, I joined George on the edge of an apple crate where he was eating a big chunk of homemade bread. We were well behind schedule, so I was eating fast and starting to do the math in my head of how many chest pouches would be needed to fill the next crate, when I heard George bite into a crispy Pink Lady and take a deep sighing breath. “This is the best job ever,” he said, with the sincerity of a child. “Fresh air, fresh apples, green grass, blue sky… Best job ever.”
I couldn’t see his eyes (in fact I’m not sure if I ever saw his eyes on the other side of his gold framed, Top Gun style shades), but I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was a tear hovering there. I looked at him for a long moment, taking in what he said and I realized that while we were both there doing the exact same work together, George was having a totally different experience to me. I was stressing out, picking as fast as I could, going home exhausted and frustrated, feeling like I should be doing something else… and he was driving three hours a day, picking half the amount of apples and experiencing moments of enlightened rapture. I was definitely missing something.
After lunch I watched George picking for a while… gently handling each apple, looking at it for a moment or two before he placed it in his pouch and reaching for the next. He might have been pissing the foreman off, but he was doing something right. We finished the day at sunset and I remember glancing back at George just leaning back, smelling the air as I drove the tractor back up the hill.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. – William Blake
The next morning was wet and raining so most of the team took the day off. George had made the trip across town unknowingly and I didn’t have the heart to abandon him, so I stuck around to help. I decided to leave my phone – and as many thoughts as possible – in the car for the day, and for once really give myself a chance to BE at the orchard. Almost instantly, the day began to feel a bit different. The apples seemed to come off a little easier and my steps through the long, wet grass just seemed to be lighter. Despite the rain, it felt good to be there, surrounded by all this life and growth and energy in full fruition. I began to feel inspired by each tree’s ability to give forth so many ripe creations (hundreds of apples and thousands of seeds!), and how every single apple had the capacity to give birth to a whole new family of apple-giving trees. What a model for sustainable living! I wasn’t rushing, I wasn’t forcing anything, I wasn’t counting… but somehow the pouches and buckets were filling.
I began to feel inspired by each tree’s ability to give forth so many ripe creations.
Midway through the morning, it started bucketing down with rain. Really hard. I ducked under a mature Granny Smith, whose branches were so laden with wet fruit that the canopy hung around me like a giant umbrella. I continued picking, lightening the load of her limbs, moving into the very center. As I stretched out around her trunk to reach a stray apple on the other side, suddenly a strange feeling came over my body. The air seemed to get a bit thicker and I felt this sort of calm wash through me that I hadn’t felt for a very long time. I took a deep breath of apple-tree-air and looked up to realize that the limbs of this tree were all wrapped around me like a giant, tree arm hug. And with my chest against the trunk, I swear I could feel her pulse. I glanced around sheepishly to make sure the foreman wasn’t coming… and then I slid my arms fully around and hugged her right back. Several seconds (maybe minutes) passed. Not a single raindrop hit me. My face was wet with tears.
Only then did I truly arrive in the orchard, and from that day forward, I cherished my time with these trees.
The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe. To match your nature with Nature. – Joseph Campbell
Some days George and I made our daily quota, some days we didn’t. He never really understood what it meant, and I no longer really cared. Strangely as I relaxed, so did the foreman. He stopped counting apples in the bin and I stopped counting my phone messages. As luck would have it, we finished the picking season just before the first frost… right on time. And just a few days after our final day of picking, my next writing project began. Right on time.
Last time I saw George he was talking about getting a job on an oil rig for a few months so he could be out in the ocean. He had heard it was good pay but difficult work with tough crews. I can just imagine him out there amongst a group of sea-weathered oil riggers, tearing off a piece of his homemade bread, taking a deep breath of clear ocean air. “Ah. Best job ever.”