Removing a Tree by its Roots: Pondering Farm-Grown Imagination in Dark Times

Reader Contribution by Jonny Malks
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A happy boy running for a shovel!

I was back at Dayspring Farm this week, volunteering on Friday, as I will do weekly for the coming months. We painted tables and dug trenches and pruned the blackberries that stretch in long rows of wooden post and line. We cut and sorted ginger, repaired caterpillar tunnels, ate lunch and did some laughing. However, the most satisfying part of the day was removing a tree by its roots from its place deep within the ground outside the greenhouse.

The tree had been growing, for many years, off to the side of its grafted rootstock, sprouting a whole other root system that meant it wasn’t going to produce fruit. It was about as tall as a one-story building with a relatively slender trunk and flaky, milk-brown bark. James, our farm manager, first tried to pull it out by wrapping a chain around the base of the trunk at ground level and attaching it to his most powerful tractor. But all that did was break the stump in half, leaving a fractured yet stubborn nub peaking up out of the grass and mud. And so, we got to digging.

Emotional Learning through Farm Life

Now, in the week leading up to my day on the farm, I’d felt wracked with grief and shame, for various (and slightly quixotic) reasons. I had a little non-COVID-related medical scare that made me feel like a hypochondriac. I’d left my loving family at home to return to the small room that I live in near campus for my last semester of college. I’d gotten rejected from (what I’m sure will be) my first of many grad schools. I turned 22. I’d been turned-down and confused by a romantic interest. I’d lied to a lifelong friend (someone I love!) for no apparent reason. And I felt very alone.

Even amidst the excitement of going back to school, my attempts at expending creative energy through songwriting and drawing, hugging those I love most goodbye, I couldn’t shake myself out of a narrative that I’d been building up in my head. This narrative, this cat-faced conscience that spoke in my voice, said that I was a failure, a shameful, wrecked, and vain fake who claims to identify as an empath whilst going around oblivious to how others feel and hurting them all the more for it. I imagined myself an ugly and strung-out creep. I still do now, in some moments, even after learning what I learned at Dayspring.

What I learned was that we had to dig, and after our first attempt at uncovering some of the tree’s upper roots, James tried his tractor and his chain once more. Still, nothing. The tractor was so helpless against the little stump that it popped up onto its back wheels which dug into the soft ground like rotors, while the smaller ones in the front dangled in the air. The engine groaned amidst the placid January day, and James revved back and forth. Nothing. There was a lot more to this tree than we’d first thought. And so, we kept digging. The hole got wider and deeper. There were some grunts and a little bit of laughter as we fell over ourselves in the awkwardness of the pit. Dirt was everywhere. I thought.

Putting Imagination to Use During Trying Times

For someone who thinks, oftentimes, that their greatest strength comes from their imagination, I sure do imagine hurtful things against myself pretty much everyday. I’ll write a song that I think is good, that I think might help other people feel a little more understood if they take the time to listen, and yet, throughout the entire process, I’m telling myself that I am a sad person, a perpetrator of petty crimes against good friends and lovers, an interrupter of the very grace about which I sing.

I tell myself that no one will ever listen, and, even if they do, they’ll not understand and take my words too literally and spread (true) rumors about how I’m messed up and how I should never be taken seriously. And, while anything is possible, most all of this is in my head. These scenarios are like metal flowers that grow softly but weigh heavy, cut upon an overactive imagination that borders and blurs, sadly, upon paranoia in my darkest moments. 

It took about a half-hour to get deep enough for another pass. At the end of this bout of digging, my best friend Gabe and I had to use trowels to get beneath the posterior roots that we’d uncovered in order for James to fit the chain again. And, though we started out this third attempt with more tractor wheelies, eventually there was a slow and satisfying CRRRAAACK as the first large root was displaced. James backed in and tried another pull. Then another. There was more movement in the stump now, more than we’d seen before. More cracks accompanied the groaning of the tractor. There was movement, change, refreshment, payoff. And then, with one great yawning lurch, the stump came up and out, roots and all. It was massive, getting bigger rather than tapering the farther that it penetrated into the clay. Later, I did a little research and found that woody root tissue typically accounts for anywhere from fifteen to twenty percent of an adult tree’s total mass; there is an entire limb below the surface, an organ no one ever sees, unless they dig. 

Lessons from a Pear Tree

The depth of this wayward pear tree taught me that there are two sides to our imaginations, one good and one bad. Now, I know that it never turns out to be that cut and dry. There’s no hero imagination that rises to fight a villainous one. There’s no Freudian dichotomy built into the neocortex and the thalamus. However, this unmistakably human trait, this facet of our lives and culture that lets us create something from nothing every single day — be it big or small – this characteristic that defines our species can be, in itself, so destructive. And it’s the destructive side that we don’t see, and that we never label as such.

Even (and, oftentimes, especially) while we paint, or write, or sing, we feel immense sadness, longing, and/or shame. We temper and inform our positive (read: imaginative) exercises with what we think are negative “emotions,” loosely-defined thoughts and moods that add up to color our views of the world. But our imaginations are the entire tree. They don’t just stop at ground level. Below, there is a world we don’t see that forces us to envision scenarios where we’re not the hero, where we hurt people, and, consequently, where those we hurt turn around and call us names and oust us from the group. Additionally, just like the tree, the imagination flows throughout its fruit and leaves all the way down into its deepest roots, making use of our entire structure. Bad mixes with good, and shame blends with hope in a way that confuses us and flattens many feelings.

And I will never rid myself of feeling down in certain moments. Nothing about our stump removal or this drawn-out metaphor will change that. Forgiving ourselves takes a lot more than some entitled, college-aged blogger telling us about a silly moment on a little farm in the Middle Peninsula. However, that day offered me perspective, and perspective can sometimes lead to healing.

But, friends, healing is slow. A tree doesn’t instantly disintegrate. It takes its time to decompose, just like we must take ours. To decompress, to work hard at loving ourselves in spite of all of the bad things we’ve done in our lives that we know are our fault, to understand that negative imaginative cycles are damaging yet natural. That they’re there and will be there. That no one will pull us out of our own ground. Not even James, with his tractor and his chain. There’s happiness in knowing that. In knowing that, in some ways, we – alone – can help ourselves.

Jonny Malksis a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts here.

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