Nature's Hidden Beauty

By Michael Ableman

In spring, I share my peach orchard with painters and photographers who flock here to capture brilliant pink blossoms on canvas and film. Today, pruning shears in hand, I am alone. Is this season not beautiful, too?

The trees are bare and stark, their craggy limbs laid open to my scrutiny against a gray winter sky. I carefully note the effects of last year's pruning and decide how to bring a weak section back to health and productivity. In bloom these trees were a sight to behold, but dormancy demands something more of me, it asks me to remember. My mind sees buds and imagines fruit, guiding my hands to cut and shape, encouraging the latent energy that will eventually burst forth. This beauty is about memory and expectation.

At a farm in Sonoma, California, I watched as workers with buckets of bright peppers and gleaming lettuces marched out of untidy fields of weeds. Puzzled, I got down on my hands and knees and parted the weeds at my feet. There before me were healthy rows of red and yellow peppers, squash and tender lettuces, a fragile gourmet harvest, surrounded by malva, wild radish and mustard. Is a field or garden bed only beautiful when rows are straight and carefully segregated for plants placed there by human hands? Nature hardly ever grows in lines of precision-spaced monospecies. More often it grows in tangled masses of diversity. Nature asks us to look for beauty, to seek it out and see it on its own terms.

Ironically, we begin our time as farmers and gardeners with what we think we know of beauty -- a desire to control, to make perfect, to shape to our own image. But our view is limited by the things that we don't yet know and haven't yet experienced in our relationship with the land we cultivate. Beauty takes time to learn.

By intimately knowing a piece of land, we come to appreciate it even when it is barren. We remember all of the seeds that emerged before, each and every crop that filled boxes and bellies and every flower whose bloom graced our table. We begin to understand that beauty is also in the invisible -- the garlic just planted but not emerged or the potatoes hidden below the surface almost ready for harvest.

As we come to know our land, we learn what it needs, and beauty becomes connected in our minds with the intimacy known as stewardship. And so my Mandarin orchard is all the more lovely for its deep carpet of discarded stable straw, because the trees are safe from drought and the soil enriched. The tangled cover crop of vetch climbing to overtake my broccoli is beautiful because I know that even as I grow one crop for the table, I am feeding the soil as well. Ultimately, beauty is decay and transition, as garbage piled and turned becomes rich compost teeming with life and the cycle begins anew.

Today I stand in my orchard and admire three rows completed, piles of cut branches at the base of each tree. Pruning manuals (many of which contradict each other) often focus on technique, enforcing the pruner's role as master. But this task, like all aspects of working with the earth, is a collaborative art. It requires careful attention and quiet observation. It gradually expands our vision beyond larger tomatoes, straighter rows and perfect blooms. In time, its rewards do not live solely in what our eyes see, but also in the heart, mind and memory of the beholder.

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