“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” – Masanobu Fukuoka
Gandhi once spoke about crossing a desert of existentialism in his youth, and upon his return, finding meaning once again in the life around him, his fellow human beings and a sense of what ought to be worked for in his life. I feel as though I can relate to his struggle with this, perhaps many of us do, and yet, after a period of time, at a certain age I suppose I decided that if I was a human being, I was going to try to be the most human human being that I could be. I did not choose this body, or this life, or this time in which I was born, but if I was to be gifted with them, I may as well live them to the most vibrant possible avenues I could imagine, to flesh out the human experience to its most human, embrace the fact that I am a sentient primate, walking around in a structured world, lost somewhere between instincts and institutions, trying to keep myself fed and happy and with some sense of meaning amongst all of the global discord.
Perhaps many people also struggle to greater or lesser degrees with how much they are willing to domesticate themselves to the turning and passing whims of etiquette and norms for the sake of safety and stability, carrying on the trajectories of culture with the faith that at present the ways we collectively carry out things are the best possible ways of doing them. In doing so, we balance how much we trust our own selves, our truth and resonance with the response and reflections of others, the collective consciousness, culture, and carry it on both in deliberate and subtle ways.
There is a certain sense of discord in any deviation from the norm, the edges themselves being the most vulnerable, even though they tend to be prolific and interesting in their own right. But these are spaces that it is sometimes necessary to occupy, particularly when the center of culture is off-center, when the trajectories of norms are not based on humanist values but rather some conglomeration of corporate notions of what we want, and the edge itself represents a more grounded, humanist, healthy life, integrated into the landscapes we occupy unknowingly behind our screens and walls and windows.
Why fruit trees? It’s not really about the fruit trees, in and of themselves, and yet in the same breath they serve as a perfectly tangible beautiful metaphor, a hand held by the world around us that we have become illiterate to, an opportunity to birth a culture that has a relation to time and place, timeless places, ones we create, where being a primate and a sentient, structured, modern man and woman can exist in relation in a way that is meaningful. We have not outgrown our bodies, we have not jumped out of our skin and transferred our brains into the eternal internet cybersphere. We are human beings, and as such, why not embrace what it means to be a human being?
We descend from frugivorous (fruit-eating) apes, dangling amongst the limbs of trees, and to this day, this concept represents a sort of childlike bliss that is hard not to smile imagining ourselves doing. The Western European creation story, that of the garden of Eden, a paradise of fruit trees that we have been cast out of, has been retold for generations with a wistful imagination. We focus generally on the story in terms of parable and morals, but perhaps a greater story is why the metaphor itself holds so much weight, that we as human beings feel a sense of co-evolutionary relationship with fruit trees, our brains evolving in relation to our food search amongst them, as patchy foragers mapping the time and place of each newly ripening tree as it would in its cyclical yearly rhythms, making sure we arrived there just as it was ripening and not a day earlier or later over vast areas of land.
This perhaps underlies part of the power of the concept of a fruit tree as a metaphor, but more so even than this, I feel as though a good fruit tree, one that produces fruit without too much maintenance and whose only responsibility to it is to pick the fruit when it is ripe, offers a sense of endless flow of production that is akin only to unconditional love, on par with metaphors like sunshine and rivers, giving and never asking for anything in return. This is the power of a fruit tree, that once planted it can potentially produce for generations, representing not only the intentions of the planter but that of the society that allows it and of the natural world at large, that nature itself allows for the generosity of the means by which we can achieve and maintain our existence in a way that does not jar with our instincts in such challenging ways as most of the rest of modernity. This is the power of a fruit tree, and if planted in public spaces, available to all who walk by, we can start to walk back against the grain of the increasing privatization that has been the march of civilization, re-civilize ourselves in a way that does not take human inequality for granted, deciding on several simple ethics, that we will care about each other, care about the earth, and work to ensure that everyone has equity, with community spaces reflecting such ideals.
Whenever we talk of sharing food on public land we inevitably end up in the discussion of the tragedy of the commons, and a debate of human nature, human greed and selfishness ensues, but perhaps what is left out of this discussion is the relation of the agricultural system itself which is being shared. If we are collectively grazing animals on a piece of land, we can overgraze it by adding more animals, if we are fishing the oceans collectively, more ships can overfish the ocean, but to some degree, small local orchards in public parks and schools are different because once you have picked all of the fruit off of a tree, you must wait until the next year. You cannot keep picking the tree, degrading it over time. Picking the fruit off a tree does not decrease the health of the tree and in fact it is the goal of the tree, to some extent, to have its fruit be picked and seeds be spread to new and novel places. When we interact with the world in this manner, it changes the way we relate to it, and perhaps possibly also to each other as a reflection of that.
When we look back on the history of the land that we now inhabit, the natural history, the land before European colonization, the forests around us were not the unkept new growth forests that they are today, but rather, were more akin to wild orchards of fruit and nut producing trees, for both human food and wild life fodder, to support the populations of deer and moose and woodland bison, in addition to the humans who managed them. This concept was lost upon their European counterparts, who imagined that this was simply the natural state of the forests here, marveling at the vast swaths of chestnut, hazelnut, beech, oak trees, persimmons, juneberries, paw paws and blackberries among others. The trees were spaced enough for sunlight to come through, allowing grass for grazing to occur underneath, and the resulting eco-system was a productive forest ecosystem supporting animals and humans alike, which supplemented the corn beans and squash annual agriculture. This is the natural history our forests, that we have so conveniently built our own vision of reality on top of and around, largely ignoring them like wallpaper at present.
In recognizing the history of this place, and trying to work towards a healthy culture of our own, is it not possible to incorporate parts of this story into our own, learning from the landscape, what can potentially exist and contribute to our culture?
This, then, therefore begins to scratch the surface of ‘why fruit trees?’ and what they can represent. Part of the of the beauty of it is that I could go on about the philosophy and science and implications of it all, or I could say nothing at all, and a fresh fruit, hanging ripe on the tree for a hand to pick would still be equally meaningful to any human being who came across it. Health should not be a chore, an act of discipline, a path outside of the mainstream that is taken despite of an unhealthy world, and if we create healthy environments, healthy cultures, health promoting landscapes, it need not be.