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.