Pruning the Jubilee Tree
Marisa Guerin, PhD – March 25, 2019
On my 49th birthday, the first day of my 50th year, I planted a little dwarf Japanese Maple tree in our front garden. I called it my “Jubilee Tree”, a symbol of my hopes for a flourishing second-half of life.
(In the scriptures, the jubilee is declared every fifty years; it is a year of liberation and of restoration, when slaves were freed and land returned. I like the idea a lot. It takes us beyond the human economy of debts and exchange, into the larger-scale natural order in which all that lives has its right to being, an endlessly creative world that is not zero-sum.)
As I moved into my years of consulting to nonprofit and religious groups after having left my corporate career, the little tree grew pretty much willy-nilly, since I actually know very little about gardening or pruning trees, and was afraid to do it wrong.
Left to its own design for 14 years or so, the little tree never got too tall but produced cascading rivers of soft dark-red leaves, reaching to the earth all around its small trunk. (It's apparently a weeping cutleaf maple.) My 4-year-old neighbor would periodically climb into this “cave” to visit with the (imaginary) family of bunny rabbits that she confidently told me lived under the tree.
Then, one day, the tree had a near-miss with catastrophe. In the late afternoon of a stormy June day, the sudden darkening of low, green-grey skies brought me to a window. Right in front of my eyes as I watched the driving rain, gale-force winds suddenly wrenched a neighbor’s 100-ft tall ancient sycamore street-tree straight up from its roots! It twirled in the air for a moment, and then it came crashing down with a huge boom.
Astonishingly, it laid itself neatly along the sidewalk, not damaging a single person, house, or car – but its massive crown of branches and leaves landed sprawled across the front garden and sidewalk of our house. Our house was spared, but the little Jubilee Tree took a direct hit that tore off half of its branches.
The next day, as everyone on the block pitched in to cut down the sycamore branches and free us from the tangled mess, one of my neighbors – an expert gardener, raised in England, of course – gave the little tree a look-over, made clean cuts where the ragged rips were, and pronounced that she thought the tree would live. All agreed that its new, unbalanced shape would always remind us of the day the giant tree fell.
Four years later, the oddly-shaped little Jubilee Tree has now returned to health. It’s been almost 18 years since I planted it. I am retired from professional life, and feel contented with a smaller presence in the public world and a personal life centered in my home and relationships.
I don’t actually know anything more about tree-pruning than I ever did. But this week, I found that I had enough courage, enough spare time, and enough trust in the hardiness of the little tree to give it a good, thorough pruning and shaping. I cleared dozens and dozens of tiny shoots to make air and space and prioritizing energy for the strong, twisted main branches – my tree’s response to what life literally “threw at it”. Maybe I have even given it a prettier shape? I’ll have to see what emerges when the rivers of leaves bud out in a month or so. I'm curious!
Just as the planting of my Jubilee Tree was my personal symbol of the hoped-for fruitfulness of my years past mid-life, the pruning of the little tree also carries personal meaning for me.
These days, I am feeling freer to work at “pruning” away the many smaller projects, distractions, clutter, and worthy but past-their-time ideas that come into my attention, so that the main branches of my one life can continue to leaf out with health, vigor, and even new shapes. I’m a very amateur gardener, but I do love what grows, in nature, and in our lives.