Kibbutz Lop-idary

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Lop-idary, I have chosen to call it, this lopping art, pruning by any other name. The kibbutz persimmon orchards are 8,000 souls with naked limbs akimbo. My work among them I call “Lop-idary,” lopping branches, limbs, plain and simple. Yet, it has a topiary quality to it, sans the fanciful, artful outcome and the aim of good topiary to make imaginary forms, imaginary beasts — unicorns, Sphinxes — so that the underlying tree-being loses its character, gains the imagination of the gardner to become another being. Topiary is rather like what is done to French poodles: transforming handsome, proud poaching dogs bred with burr-resistant fur, into prancing decorations, with bulbous tail ends, swellings mid-torso, tuberous hair balls above the ankles.

No, what I do with the persimmons is not topiary, for I am to lop to bring more fruit, bring more light to the inner, lower limbs, make these trees, well, more persimmon-y. Lop-idary, I baptize my new discipline, as it shares something with lapidary art: to cut, polish the rough gem, enough to bring out the radiance within — to capture as much light as possible to make the gem more beautiful — yet, not make that fatal cut that will ruin a fine gem, make it second rate, even shatter it.

This Friday, a week before I take on another year of life, I bike to kibbutz, try out my mending Achilles tendon, which serves me most of the morning. I am delivered by Moishek, riding in the kibbutz chariot, a dusty dieseled Subaru, to the immigrant Thai tribe taking a warming break by the smoldering morning fire made of tree limbs. Before we arrive, Moishek challenges me to a bit of math. We stop at the shed to get oil, then gas for the power saw. Four percent oil to the gas. Moshek asks, “If I put in 300 cc of oil, how much gas should we use?” I first try to do this in Hebrew in my head, realize that I would do better in English, think that this is a bit of joke, then realize he is seriously asking my help. He comes to the accurate answer in Hebrew. I apologize, saying that I went to medical school, since I wasn’t an ardent numbers man; had I been, I would have been a physicist. He responds, he became an avocado grower out of similar sentiments. After adding the dollop of oil, we drive to the gas pump on the kibbutz, where he swipes his kibbutz card so that he is accountable. He pumps. I watch the meter; feel some unease, as he seems to have gone over the seven and a bit liters we had predicted. He has filled the container and now realizes that he was watching the figures for shekels rather than liters. Now, what to do? I figure he needs add perhaps another 250 cc of oil and we head back to the shack. I watch; think we could pour off a bit into a second container to fit in the oil. He simply spills a bit on the ground. I find my American (Bay Area) self at dis-ease with thoughts of ground pollution, and correct myself silently: he’s done this for years, his kibbutz. I set the oil-gas container in the back, next to my bike.

We watch the truck driver load pallets of avocados, that godly fruit (if only god had not made the pits so large). We are off. I remember to talk to Moishek about biodiesel and what I have been learning. Perhaps it is too early in the morning, as he seems less engaged than when we last talked, although he does recall the name of the third crop that is rich in oils — Jojoba.

At the fields, lined by Highway 2, stands on kibbutz land. Its fields are hidden by a massive sign advertising Jeans with a young fellow grasping the butt of a young lady. Beneath this icon of clothing bequeathed to us by Levi Strauss, who simply added rivets to strengthen miners’ pockets, loaded with gold ore in California, I will lop-idate. I pick the newest set of loppers, plastic sleeve still protecting the blades. I console myself that the others are more experienced lop-idaters than I; can work the older shears better, but I know this is rationalization. A novice laborer blames his tools.

Moishek leaves me with the two Thai loppers, Shay and Tomkap. I first follow Shay, work on the same tree with him. I see that I am a hesitater, a limb nibbler; hand-trim a few dry branches to liberate others. I mantra the three reasons to trim: if more than three branches bud from a node, cut the extras; if one branch threatens another with proximity, will bruise the future offspring of its brethren, off it goes; if a limb is a sapper off the trunk, or looks diseased, it bites the dust. I work from outside, in; periphery to center.

But, Shay is a great lopper, a Paul Bunyan of loppers. He glances at a tangle and in contrast to me, goes to a limb’s base; hacks it off. If the limb is too robust for lopping, out comes his folding hand saw. We have already been preceded by Tomkap with the motor saw, felled large limbs. Some he has pulled out to lie in the troughs between rows, but others he leaves for us to remove. At times, I work, nibbler that I am, trimming a limb abutting its brother, only to realize that it is crowding the other, because it has been felled by Tomkap; slain, it lies cheek by jowl. I learn to take a broader glance at a prospective tree, pull off the lying limbs, before I lop-idate. As the morning wears on, I become more assertive, although not as much as Shay. Or perhaps I become more careless.

I find my mind wandering to previous thoughts of soul-trimming. Of how the theosophist, Rudolf Steiner, who originated the Waldorf Schools, wrote with a touch of envy about plants. They simply concentrate on growing, fruiting. I think: if only we could do such periodic soul trimming at seasons of our lives; check out which limbs of our soul are a bit worn, perhaps diseased, even hanging on as if alive, but dead within; find the the sappers sprouting from our trunks, some of which sap our life spirits, others, perhaps lighting out on their own; trim off those parts of our soul-limbs that bruise its brethren. All this to help us lead more fruitful lives, bring greater sun into the interior of our beings. If only we could have someone come along to help us be selective — a touch the topiarist (but not too froo-froo), a touch the lapidarist — then our lives would be fuller; our soul’s springs and summers more glorious. And, like the persimmon trees, we should be forgiving of ourselves if we trim a bit too much at times; just sprout some new soul-limb.

But we are not such rooted characters.

By noon, my wounded Achilles announces itself. I try to reason with it; another hour and we will be done; shame on you that you can’t stretch yourself a bit so we can work to the end of the day with our Thai colleagues. But, it, this tendon, prevails. Wounded Achilles rounds up the usual suspects: “Remember the last time you didn’t listen to me?” “You think your will can outdo my pain?” “You need me more than you need your conscience right now.” Besides its arguments, it gives me an occasional twinge to remind me of how my gastrocnemius felt — fisted in pain — when the tendon gave out a few weeks back. I throw in the towel, or at least sheath my new shears and call Moishek.

He invites me to have a “bis,” a bite to eat. But I am ready to rest. Also, when we go to eat, he sips water and I am too much the social eater to eat alone. He always drives me to the edge of the kibbutz, near the intersection, the traffic light, as if to send me off into a foreign world. He points to the odometer; teaches me plant wisdom. Each tree has something of an odometer within. Each has a particular night time temperature that arouses something in the tree; perhaps, for the kiwi, it is six degrees Celsius. Then each night it is above six degrees, the tree “counts” the number of hours it feels above six degrees and sets it into its odometer. Each tree has its count of hours and degrees; when it reaches a threshold, for instance 300, it begins to open its tender leaves, its flowers. The almond is the first flowering tree B’Aretz, this Holy Land. They line the road to Jerusalem: along barren limbs, the almond flower is like distant stars in a dark firmament. When, on the road to Jerusalem, I first glimpsed the white flowers, like stars in the firmament, I waited to be stricken by enlightenment, like Paul/Saul on the road to Damascus. But, no lightening strikes; only their delicate shimmering in the sun.

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I treasure these gems. Gather my bike, and am off for Shabbat, the budding lop-idater.

Copyright Szajnberg 2020

Written by

Born in a German Displaced Persons' Camp, I grew up in Rochester and attended the University of Chicago College and Med School.

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