There’s a Jewish proverb that says, “If you’re planting a tree and hear that the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and see.” I like this saying for several reasons. One is that it seems humorously skeptical about the prospect of deliverance: if someone tells you things are about to get a whole lot better, it’s probably not true. I also like the advice it gives to anyone who thinks some new knowledge, technology, or politician is going to change the world so drastically that we don’t need to worry about continuing the old ways. “Keep doing what’s tried and true,” it seems to be saying, “and then see if the ‘revolution’ is all it’s cracked up to be.” But the thing I like most about this proverb is that, in talking about preparing for the future, it uses the example of planting a tree.
As a gardener, I like to think of myself as someone with patience. After all, every spring I have to think ahead six or seven weeks to start my tomato plants from seed. In the age of fast food and Netflix Instant, that seems like a pretty big deal, and I give myself a hearty pat on the back for it. On the other hand, I have to confess that I haven’t planted a whole lot of trees in my life, even though I would love to have a couple of huge pecans or walnuts covering the backyard in produce every fall. Trees aren’t expensive. Gurney’s sells English walnut trees for $17, and pecans for $12. So what’s the hold-up? It’s the fact that English walnuts don’t start bearing for 6 to 8 years after planting. And pecans don’t start for 10 to 15!
When you’re looking at 10 to 15 years, it’s really easy to say to yourself, “Oh, what’s one more year? I’ll get those in the ground next spring.” The funny thing is, I’ve been saying that for 15 years now. It’s been 15 years since I first laid eyes on Henry Field’s seed and nursery catalog and saw those photographs of stately trees beckoning to me. But it was easier to spend my money on seeds that would produce something that very year: cantaloupe, corn, or luscious tomatoes. And yet, if I had spent $20 on a couple of pecan trees to plant in my parents’ yard, today we’d be swimming in pecans. Oh, the lost opportunities!
Even today it would be easy to say, “Why plant a tree now, when I’ll be 40 before I see any nuts from it?” But when I’m tempted to think this way, I try to put myself in the shoes of my 40-year-old self. She probably won’t be living at her parents’ house anymore. Hopefully she’ll have a farm not too far away. But wherever she’s living, I know she’ll think it’s awesome if, when she goes to visit her parents, she gets to help them harvest bushels of pecans.
This was the thinking behind my putting some nuts in a couple of buckets of dirt this winter. I had the pecans. I had the dirt. It didn’t cost me much to put them together and see what happened. This was also the thinking behind the order I placed at Gurney’s in February: two English walnut trees, a Honeysweet pear, and an Elberta peach, all of which arrived yesterday, their roots wrapped in wet newspaper shreds. I spent the afternoon digging holes, mixing in compost and fertilizer, watering, and mulching. And now, there they are: four sticks in the ground, valiantly representing my hopes for the future.
It’s now that the work of planting is done that I realize a really great thing about trees. Besides some occasional watering and fertilizing and possibly a little pruning, there’s nothing else you have to do for them. They will grow quietly year after year, sending out more and more limbs, higher and higher, until one day those limbs will be heavy with gifts, repaying my love and care many times over. And if I keep busy in the vegetable garden, that day will probably be here before I know it!
No matter where you think you’ll be in ten years, plant a tree.