Trees Grow Down
Not long ago I learned the term “punctuated equilibrium”. It’s a theory that originated in biology and spread to other fields. It refers to the notion that, rather than being gradual or incremental, change tends to occur in bursts after long periods of stasis. This is how we can have massive biological, cultural, or technological shifts like the Neolithic Era, the Renaissance, or the Industrial Revolution. They seemed like a massive upheaval at the time, and they were – but they were preceded by an undercurrent of energy bubbling away beneath the surface. That initial work wasn’t always visible, but it’s what made such massive leaps possible.
I didn’t know the name of this theory when Alan and I first moved to the farm, but I was well acquainted with the concept. When he planted the first fruit trees in our orchard, he expected them to grow the same way his garden might – in a sort of predictable, incremental way. But they sat there for years looking exactly the same. He would bend their branches to make sure they were pliable and scratch the bark to reveal the green. They were alive, even thought it looked like nothing was happening.
My mantra during those days was a farming phrase: “Trees grow down before they grow up“. I’d like to say it was some sort of bestowed agrarian wisdom, but I may have invented it for the occasion. I had to believe that if the trees weren’t making any progress above ground, then it must all be happening below. That once their root structure was fully developed, they would suddenly blossom into the beautiful fruit tree we were envisioning.
This may not have been farming wisdom, but it was a deep truth I knew from my work as an artist. Punctuated equilibrium may be easy to see on a macro historical scale – after all, we use these biological, cultural, and technological bursts to mark our history – but it happens on a micro creative level as well. Have you ever had a creative problem take forever to solve, and then suddenly – BOOM – everything clicks into place? It feels like there’s something getting in your way and once the logjam is removed, the dam bursts with creative energy.
Sometimes progress is incremental, sure. But often it isn’t. And the period before a burst of massive change can be discouraging. It can feel like nothing is happening, or not enough. But it’s critically important to keep doing the work and not give up – after all, trees grown down before they grow up.”
I wrote the above essay a year ago. It was about creativity – or so I thought. I read it so much differently now. I thought of it the other day as Alan and I were talking about recent events. We’re at a point in history where we’re collectively feeling it – the tipping point. Punctuated equilibrium. We’re on the cusp of massive change, and people everywhere are saying it, chanting it, taking it to the streets and marching it: THIS time feels different.
The past few weeks have been overwhelming. I’ve careened between anger and tears. I’ve had to gut-check my privilege. Breonna Taylor was the same age as my daughter. I didn’t even know her name two weeks ago, let alone ever fear I’d be in her mother’s position. And she’s just one of so, so many.
Until recently, I assumed that being a good person was enough, that being aware was enough. I was aware of the problem, perhaps. But the scope? Not even close. And simply not contributing to a problem doesn’t help solve it. I get that now.
Like many others, I’ve been struggling with how to respond. I’ve been taking time to listen and read and connect and grieve. Like others, I’m aching to help, but learning where to start. It’s a process, and perhaps one I should have started long ago. But as I reflect, another agrarian saying comes to mind: