This article explores a theme that threads through much of the issue: the first work of art each of us has is our lives. Brandy Williams lives in Oroville in eastern Washington.
MORNING, FIRST DAY OF HARVEST. The familiar canvas bag rests on my stomach, straps cutting into my shoulders as it fills with apples. As I walk to the bin to empty my bag, the tractor driver rides by. He sees I’m nearly done with the tree and need my bin moved down the row. As he pulls up, I flag him to a stop and ask for a ten foot ladder; my eight foot won’t reach the top branches.
The orchard is my monastery and my Temple; the day’s work is my practice. In the four years I’ve lived in Washington state, I’ve participated in four harvests. The first two years I picked apples – the hardest physical labor I’ve ever done. It was the ordeal I had to pass through to enter the Temple proper. After the second harvest I found year-round work and a permanent home in the orchard. Now I also handle a variety of support functions at harvest – running irrigation water and collecting props (branch supports).
In every orchard job I’ve noticed certain operative principles, attitudes which help the work go easily and smoothly.
The first of these is reverence. I try to keep in mind the fact that however well I have tended the trees throughout the year, I have not grown the apples. The tree grew the apples. If I approach a tree thanking it for its fruit, I slide between the branches naturally and easily. If I fail to offer reverence, the branches catch at me and hinder me. Sometimes I think the act of acknowledgement centers me. Sometimes I think the tree knows.
I learned reverence my second harvest. That year I lived ascetically, in a one room cabin with a woodstove, fridge, sink, and adjoining outhouse – nothing else. My long range financial planning extended to my next paycheck, and my only expenses were food, and gas for the "beater" truck. I was so grateful to be able to live here. I loved to watch the trees change with the season, lose their leaves, bend with the icicles on their branches. It seemed the whole orchard was in motion.
The second useful orientation which makes my work smoother is economy of motion. Harvest is a meditation in movement. I pick forty apples to the bag, twenty-three bags to the bin, three bins a day. The apples come off the tree with a flick of the wrist, repeated almost three thousand times a day. Since I’m paid by the bin, the amount of money I earn depends on the number of small motions I can cram into an hour.
When I pick up props or change water, I do a lot of bending. Establishing a pattern of movement early in the day enables me to bend as few times as possible and reduces the strain to my back; it also enables me to complete the task in a given number of hours or weeks.
Break time. I top off a bin and chalk my name on it, stop to eat an apple. I love the really big, juicy ones that grow at the top of the tree, the kind I never find in the stores. I savor the crisp sugary taste, and the satisfaction of knowing I can use my body to fill a large wooden box with a thousand pounds of fruit in an hour and a half.
I always take this opportunity to enjoy the countryside. This is the third practice, contemplation. From the orchard’s hillsides I can look down at the thin blue ribbon of water, the Okanogan River, wandering through the acres of apple trees stretched along the valley’s walls. The desert hills loom beyond, and above them towers the misty bulk of Mt. Chopaka. When the tractors shut off and the constant drone of their motors dies away, the click of the stapler tagging markers to bins – the tinny bang of ladder tongue against rungs – the barking of a dog in some distant house, the whine of a truck on the highway, all produce in me a profound euphoria. This is the sounding of my Temple bell, all the resonance of the valley collecting at this one point.
But moments of transcendent awareness are ephemeral. When they have passed, I return to the struggle to direct my thoughts, the fourth procedure for skillful work. About the third day of harvest, my movements become semi-automatic. While I still have to watch what I’m doing – when I balance on top of a ladder with a full bag of apples, for example – this frees a large block of time in which my body is occupied and my mind is free to wander.
I notice a certain pattern to my thoughts. In the morning, when I am fresh and clear, I can concentrate on philosophy and abstract concepts (such as how the mind functions). Later I fall into reverie – memories and stories and fantasies. Late in the day or when my energy level drops, I tend to get into negative loops. How angry I am at the boss. How I’m going to pay my bills…
I have bills now, and a house with oil heat and an indoor bathroom. The "beater" truck still runs, but I have a fancy car now, too, and insurance. My life is more comfortable physically, and I appreciate that. Sometimes, though, I miss the simplicity of a hardier existence. Life in the mainstream gives me more to fret about.
When I notice myself dropping into negativity I try to redirect my mind. Sing all the songs I can remember. Take a break to listen to the wind rustling the leaves, to watch the slow wheeling of a hawk.
Some people call it uptime – turning awareness outward to the natural world. I work at maintaining uptime for the first hour or two in the morning. The idea is to see, hear, feel what is around me, without internal comment: listen to a dozen bird songs simultaneously; look at the mist against the mountains; feel the wind against my skin, the ladder rungs against my legs.
This meditation, the fifth operative principle of productive work, clears my mind and helps me to avoid fretting. Even with this effort and discipline, though, there are times distracting thoughts rise up like swarms of ants. When this happens I take up breathing practice, maintaining an even rhythm of deep inhalation, retention of air, and complete exhalation. The concentration calms my mind and restores balance to my body.
One of the most important functions of meditation is to train the mind; picking apples is as effective a method as any I have tried.
There comes a time when the sheer difficulty of the physical labor exhausts me. Some years I become ill (fall cold, harvest flu) or get irritable at everything. Emergency procedures – the sixth set of understandings – are called for.
I look at exhaustion as a purification process; it strips me of nonessentials, brings my focus firmly into the Now. Some of my most fruitful meditation comes when I’m really tired and can’t think, when I have to concentrate entirely on what I’m doing. It’s also a signal to me to clean up my diet and get adequate sleep.
It helps to remind myself that any spiritual path is difficult. I imagine a Zen novice gets very tired of the hours in zazen, Just Sitting. My own practice is to Just Pick Apples; I don’t suppose it is any more difficult.
The seventh attitude I try to maintain is the spirit of giving. I tithe a tenth of my income to support various causes and people. In the same way I tithe a tenth of my year to the service of the earth: my labor helps to feed people. If I can’t approach my work joyfully, it is not a worthwhile offering.
The most important and difficult lesson harvest teaches me is who I am. I become aware of Myself observing my body working, my emotions fluctuating, my thoughts cycling. When I lose Myself and identify with my body, emotions and thoughts, the work is difficult and unrewarding. When I can maintain awareness of my essential Self, work is simple and pleasurable.
It is the major difference between me and the Zen monk. His/her life is structured by monastery schedule; mine is constrained by the necessity of work. But the monk has a master for guidance. I have no guru; just books, the wisdom of the earth, and Myself.
Evening, last day of harvest. Everyone crowds around to fill the last bin. The pressure and exhaustion have passed for a year, the mistakes made and the apples bruised cannot be called back. The fruits of the summer have been gathered. It’s over. It’s time to go, but I linger with the crew, hang onto my bag, hang onto what I remembered about myself for a moment longer.
It is not a good day.
Everything is slightly out of synch.
I’m chugging along
As if my fuel lines are clogged.
How different it is
When I remember to fill the tank