Sunday, March 5, 2017

Pruning and editing

This week I took some hours off from writing to prune fruit trees. Normally I wouldn't do this, with the novel due in just over a week. But in just over a week it'll be too late to prune, with the temperatures rising.

I've done two peach trees and two overgrown cherry trees. There's two apple trees, one small cherry and a row of raspberries still to do.

I live in an intentional community, so they're not "my" trees. But I feel responsible for them. My friend Erin, who used to live here and taught me everything I know about gardening, also taught me how to prune them. I always remember her attitude about it: I thought of her as the Little Red Hen. She would come by and try to rope me into pruning, because she knew I was probably the only person in the community who would say yes. And then later in the year when the trees fruited, she would come by and rope me into picking with her and we'd each take home a share. I had a right, because I pruned.

And now she's gone, and I'm the only one still here who really knows how to prune fruit trees, so here I am...

I used to be very intimidated by pruning. It's not an exact science, and Erin was always hemming and hawing over what to take off, making me feel "if the expert isn't sure, how will I ever know??" Ever since she left I've done it... hesitantly. (Till last year when I learned from an online tutorial that the bulk of what you have to do for an apple tree is cut off everything that points straight up--finally something simple!) But this year I think I've actually hit my stride.

The fun thing is just how similar pruning is to editing.

There's the importance of looking at the big picture. Seeing the tree as a whole, feeling its balance. There's the need for confidence, even ruthlessness: yes, you have to make some fundamental changes sometimes, cut off some big limbs. (I've neglected those poor cherry trees in previous years, out of lack of confidence. Due to that I had to saw off four limbs as thick as various parts of my leg this year. Timberrrr!) It's actually very hard to kill a tree.* There's the different sizes of tools, which could be used a great symbols for the different stages of editing: the pruning saw for the developmental edit, the loppers for the mid-level work, trimming out unnecessary transitions and consolidating scenes and such, and the little clippers for tightening everything and cleaning it up. The work feels very similar: the mid-level stuff, for instance, always involves seeing if anything's redundant. Do these two scenes basically do the same thing? Cut one. Are these two branches parallel and close to each other? Cut one. The small-scale work is clean-up: go through and cut all the small twigs that point upwards. Go through and cut all the words you don't need.

And then there's the feeling when it comes together, this kind of gestalt. Or maybe it's just the feeling of seeing how it should be in your head and then seeing how you can make it that way.

And the contemplation of the job done, of course, your eyes on the whole thing clean and tight and right. I really look forward to that.


* If you've tried to kill a tree, you've probably noticed! If you've cut down a tree and don't want watershoots sprouting up around it, paint the cut stump immediately with herbicide. It's the only thing I condone using herbicide for, and it works. If you're pruning, avoid a common mistake, and have the confidence to say: that's right, I only want the tree to be this tall, and I will automatically cut off anything above that.


  1. Thanks for the interesting comparison, Heather. My neighbour (and my wife) have told me I shouldn't be climbing trees at my age, so I'm getting a professional gardener to do the pruning (if he has time).

    1. Thanks for reading, Viktor! Yes, I agree with being kind to your body! I ended up not doing the apple trees or the raspberries because I got sick over the weekend (both me and my 3-year-old with hacking coughs, fun times) and it may be too late. Oh well. I *will* get the book in on time though! I can't wait.