Guest post: the Parable of the Apple Orchard

This is a guest post by Chris Z.

Note from Chris Z: It’s all true, although like I say in the parable I’ve got no idea about botany, proper pruning, etc. This is just something I’ve had in my mind for a few years and I wanted to put down. It was brought back to my mind again this year while pruning and pondering the unstated goals, contention and general lack of unity that seems to appear on the big Mormon blogs. But I think the lessons can especially apply to traditional conservatives who get too swept up in ideology divorced from Christ-like attributes.

The Parable of the Apple Orchard

Lee and his wife purchased an apple orchard nearly 30 years ago. Some of trees were planted by the first Mormon immigrants into this valley. When he purchased the orchard, it was well maintained, the trees were evenly spaced with room for the roots to grow underground and for the branches to stretch out and absorb the sun above. Careful forethought and persistent upkeep made harvesting of the fruit easier. It was a beautiful orchard, and the trees were some of the most reliable in the valley for producing wonderful fruit. Every fall, the the trees would produce thousands of apples, which made the best apple cider I’ve ever tasted and was freely shared with everyone in town. Some of the apples would be sold, but at best this was to pay for only a portion of the costs put into the orchard.

As Lee was getting older and nearing the end of his life, he and his wife weren’t able to maintain the trees as well as when they was younger. The orchard went several years without pruning. When I heard they needed help pruning, I volunteered.

These were large trees, some of the biggest apple trees I’ve ever seen. The trunk of each tree was strong and wide from years of growth, with 3-4 main branches stretching out horizontally. But shooting off from the main branches were literally hundreds of skinny branches reaching straight up into the air. Each off-shooting branch was up to 2 inches in diameter and typically 6 feet or taller.

“See those branches shooting straight up? All of those suckers need to be cut off,” said Lee.

“Suckers,” is what he called the branches because they sucked up nutrients and just shot straight up. Ideally, the tree would be trained to grow more outward than upward. This not only made picking fruit easier, but it increased growth in the right areas.

I looked at the single tree, at least 12ft tall, and even higher if you counted the ‘suckers’. There were hundreds of these branches growing straight up into the air, and nearly 30 trees. A single tree would take about 6 hours to prune, if you worked without pause. No small task when I had a full time job and kids to look after. But the job could get done if several people from the ward pitched in and each pruned a few as they had time.

While I worked on the ladder, Lee slowly and painfully milled around on below anxious to do something. He would slowly move limbs out of the way as they fell down from the tree. I could tell he was thrilled to receive help, but uncomfortable at the idea of being idle while others worked in his behalf. I went to work, pruning out the branches as instructed, and feeling a little bit sad to cut off and cast aside these perfectly straight branches.

Knowing the various parables of the vineyard and looking for an analogy to occupy my mind during the seemingly never ending cutting and moving of the ladder, I said to Lee, “You know, it’s almost as if all these branches are reaching straight up for heaven. It’s kind of sad to cut them all down.”

“They don’t produce any fruit,” was all the wisdom Lee offered as he continued to mill about, moving severed branches from one pile to another. (Incidentally, the pruned branches were all dragged off near the river to be burned later)

That simple sentence was enough to occupy my mind not only for the rest of the pruning, but for years after. And was brought back to my mind when I returned to prune this year.

The vertical branches, hundreds of them, perhaps tens of thousands when the entire orchard was considered grew straight upward towards heaven, drawing strength from the root of the tree. Each branch benefiting from generations of watering, digging, fertilizing, and heavy pruning.

The trees in the orchard had grown strong from years of care and growth. And now the branches were benefiting from that sure foundation and shooting straight up into the air on their own, seemingly defying the outward, fruit producing growth of the rest of the tree, and almost defying gravity itself.

And yet countless numbers of these branches, were not only “useless” in that they didn’t produce fruit, but they were actually harming the fruit crop by taking moisture and nutrients unto themselves to enable further upward growth while also reducing the nutrients available for the production of more fruit by the lower branches. Not only that, but by growing straight up, seeking greater light for themselves they blocked light from the rest of the tree. Again limiting the growth of the more productive parts of the tree.

On closer inspection, it would seem the tree itself was almost encouraging, or at least permitting these branches to thrive. Most new growth seemed to be directed into these upward, fruitless branches. For every dozen ‘suckers’ that was two inches in diameter shooting straight up off the main branch there would be two dozen ‘suckers’ a inch in diameter. For every couple dozen of those there would be four or five dozen half-inch diameter branches, and it seemed the patterned continued right down to the hundreds of little quarter-inch and smaller suckers on every tree.

I’m no gardener. I don’t know much about trees or pruning. I don’t claim scientific accuracy or superior understanding of plant biology or photosynthesis. But in considering what I saw in my relatively brief experience in the orchard (compared to the literal lifetime of work previous generations had put in), there are a lot of ways this parable could be considered. I won’t elaborate on them all, because I think it’s possible for everyone to get various levels of meaning out of it.

But in considering alternative readings of this parable I think it’s possible to draw conclusions about where we can go wrong if we’re not careful — as individuals, families, generations, wards, as a church, or as nations, and certainly as practitioners of whatever ideology we’re drawn to, be it conservative or progressive.

Feel free to ponder and discuss.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

8 thoughts on “Guest post: the Parable of the Apple Orchard

  1. The next ward over’s bishop used to work in a steel mill. He talked about the experience of refining scrap metal, the heat involved, the removal of the dross, and tied it to the refiner’s fire and the trials we undergo. But then he took it one step further. What’s the refined steel good for? he asked. By itself, he said, not much. It first needs to be stamped into something useful, and then it needs to be put to use.

  2. This is great. I’ve enjoyed these two parables.

    What would happen if we viewed the branches worth through the eyes of a progressive?
    Who are we to decide it is better for a branch to bring forth fruit?
    Isn’t every branch entitled to a long life, and free health care?

  3. Thank you Chris Z. For me, I can apply this parable to my own life or my family. As Americans we are blessed with many opportunities in which to choose to spend our time on. Often, we have to make choices between good and best. Sometimes we really don’t know what is good or best for the long run. This is where prayer comes in and taking a moment to access (prune) what activities we choose to participate in, and in the long run, what will produce the best fruit.

  4. Sometimes, we are not just taking nourishment from Christ, we are pointing ourselves in such a trajectory that we believe will take us *above* others in our journey. We are not content to bring forth fruit for Christ (using nourishment drawn from Christ), we wish to be more visible, more important, “higher” than others who do so. We have a desire for attention, recognition, and superiority. And that makes us fruitless, soon to be pruned right off the tree of life by divine pruning sheers. The end.

  5. I’d also add my two cents in. A lot of what we see in the blogs is posts that provide personal intellectual growth. You can even look at the tree (or orchard) and say, “see the church is thriving, look at all this great publishing, look at all this innovative work, look at all the inclusionary teaching, etc. etc. ”

    But what fruit is that bringing? Is the goal for millions of us to reach up to heaven on our own? Or are we to support the growth of the tree in the vineyard the Savior established in generations long past.

    Growth without fruit is meaningless. I’d probably be inclined to define fruit as souls converted* unto Christ by covenant through his church.
    *with an emphasis on actually being converted, see Elder Bednar’s recent talk on this issue.

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