Orchards, observation and creative expression

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
And make our garden grow!
  ~ “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide; lyrics by Richard Wilbur


In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Jan. 14, 2018), I wrote about some things to think about when planning a residential orchard.  Here, I want to digress from practical matters and share a few pieces of “orchard poetry” by one of my favorite poets, Richard Wilbur (1921-2017). Wilbur also wrote the lyrics to several songs in Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 musical, Candide.

Wilbur died a few months ago (Oct. 14, 2017) at the age of 96; however, during his long lifetime, he earned acclaim for his rhythmical insights about everyday objects and experiences. Among numerous awards for his work, Wilbur won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award for Things of This World (1956), and another Pulitzer Prize for New and Collected Poems (1989).

Wilbur grew up on a farm in North Caldwell, New Jersey, and he said that experience made him more attentive to the natural world – “to fruit trees and animals and garden crops, to woods and various kinds of labor.”

My orchard in January, 2017

“The activities of the farm were interesting enough to be worth hanging around and looking at,” Wilbur said in a 1995 interview. “I suppose that growing up on a farm as a privileged observer of these activities contributed to making me observant.”

Here is what Wilbur observed about orchard trees in winter in his poem, “Orchard Trees, January” (2010)

It’s not the case, though some might wish it so
Who from a window watch the blizzard blow

White riot through their branches vague and stark,
That they keep snug beneath their pelted bark.

They take affliction in until it jells
To crystal ice between their frozen cells,

And each of them is inwardly a vault
Of jewels rigorous and free of fault,

Unglimpsed until in May it gently bears
A sudden crop of green-pronged solitaires.

He writes again of orchards on a windy spring day in “Young Orchards” (2008):

These trees came to stay.
Planted at intervals of
Thirty feet each way,

Each one stands alone
Where it is to live and die.
Still, when they have grown
To full size, these trees
Will blend their crowns, and hum with
Mediating bees.
Meanwhile, see how they
Rise against their rootedness
On a gusty day,
Nodding one and all
To one another, as they
Rise again and fall,
Swept by flutterings
So that they appear a great
Consort of sweet strings.

Young blossoms on my crabapple tree in April, 2017

The poet’s words are reminders that gardeners, too, are privileged observers, and the same skills of observation that make a successful gardener can also be tapped for creative expression. Some gardeners take photographs, some paint or draw, and others write poetry. Sometimes I think it’s fun to turn my garden notes into a poem, such as this one I wrote about my crabapple tree last spring:

Malus ‘Snowdrift’

Your blossoms will fall like
Snowflakes in a
Few weeks’ time,

But now it’s early April, and many of your
Pink buds are still tight against the
Lingering hint of frost.

Yet, you’re eager for springtime and so you
Open yourself to the

Joined on reaching branches by
Fresh green leaves that welcome your

Your soft presence
Attracts a blue jay couple who sing as they
Build their nest among your limbs.

Fragrant pheromones wafting through the air
From your blossoms entice a
Thousand bees.

I stand beneath your flowered limbs, and
Listen to their frenzy. The
bees know

Your blossoms will fall like
Snowflakes in a
Few weeks’ time.

But right now
The bees and I are in

We don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet to turn our garden observations into artistic expression. As Wilbur said,  there is a place “for poetry of close observation, for poetry that acknowledges the importance of things however small…” After all, Wilbur noted,”The world’s fullness is not made but found.”

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