GEORGE WASHINGTON NEVER CHOPPED DOWN A CHERRY TREE
The Orchard, the place into which Alyska and I moved just over a year ago is reviving. This year, we have the benefit of being here before everything is lush because any attempts at pruning after leafing would do more harm than good. This stays true even in a particular case where our cherry trees have a fungal disease which is all the more apparent in a tree still sleeping.
The disease is fungal, we think. It starts at the tip and slowly works its way down the limb. The branches look sullen, desiccated, as they begin to dry up. Inside, the fungus leaves the core of the limbs brittle and dusty. The disease spreads from branch to branch and creeps inwards to the trunk. When it gets to the trunk, the tree is effectively dead. If it does fruit, they’ll be deformed and fall to the ground where the disease can get into the earth around the tree. The spot becomes tainted and anything else you plant there can spread it further.
At the age of six, George Washington took an axe and chopped down a cherry tree in his father’s orchard. Upon discovery and questioning, Washington told his father, “I cannot tell a lie. It was I who cut down the cherry tree.” To which Washington’s father proclaimed the boy’s honesty to be worth a thousand cherry trees and Washington went unpunished.
The story about Washington is apocryphal. It originated after his death in the first Washington biography written. The book’s source was a neighbor, unnamed, who said he knew Washington as a child to who Washington’s father related the story. Washinghton’s father died when he was 11 and the event happened, supposedly, where Washington was six. The opportunities for the story to travel very far, only come out after his death, is unlikely.
But the myth lives on the reason to which resides in the biographer himself. The book, entitled, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen, comes out swinging from the title alone. It advertises its intent just so directly almost like propaganda. Mason Locke Weems, the author, sold the story, even, with that intention,
“Washington you know is gone! Millions are gaping to read something about him…My plan! I give his history, sufficiently minute…I then go on to show that his unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues.” -Mason Weems
History’s winners write the stories. They can take the story, craft it, to build a mythology around anything - a person, a war, an election - and it can become insidious as it spreads from person to person. The myths calcify as each generation tells it to the next. Maybe a little extra embellishment here or there, triumphs become even more tremendous at each retelling.
And we can’t help but listen. Stories are how we learn and for millennia they were how we remembered. Human’s predisposition to stories, sociality, and demonstrably faulty memories can help any infections thing spread just so quickly.
If you can get to the branches before the disease spreads too far, you have as chance of saving the tree. The procedure can be tedious and difficult and, sometimes, looks hopeless. First, you have to locate the withered twigs and branches, follow them back to the healthy parts of the limb, and cut it yet further down enough that both cut ends contain healthy tissue.
No matter what, the pruning will take some good material with it. It’s the hard part of the potential cure, of course, to see the tree so exposed before it can be made vibrant again. It is both the hardest and easiest thing to do for the tree. Hard because you may not do it right and do more damage or miss something little that can fester. Easy because the life that retakes the empty spots will be thick and green and plentiful.
Alyska spent the winter learning how to do all this. It takes a lot of time and care to cultivate the right procedure so you can be successful. She was patient with me while she taught me, too, so that I could have a hand in the revitalization. We spent three hours this weekend pruning trees, including the most infected of the cherry trees in the orchard.
Cut a branch. Wipe the blade with alcohol to sterilize. Cut again. Sterilize. And onward.
Unfortunately, because of creeping neglect from previous tenants and our own lack of understanding last year, the disease made it very far into a major scaffolding limb of the tree. You can’t take as hand cutter to a 5 year old limb. You have to use bigger tools.
It wasn’t until the 5th edition of the biography, published in 1806, that the cherry tree story appeared. It passed from Weems to a Presbyterian minister, William McGuffey, through their congregation an mutual belief in creating a more virtuous society. McGuffey printed his own books, The McGuffey Reader and the Eclectic Second Reader, where spread the cherry tree story directly through his congregation and into the world at large.
By 1830, the story was firmly entrenched. PT Barnum, in 1835, bought an elderly slave to include in his traveling circus. Barnum, ever the storytewller, boiled her as the slave that helped raise Washington and had her tell stories from Washington’s childhood, including the fable of the cherry tree.
And the rest was history.
I’ve cut down a few tree limbs but this was the first time I used a proper chopping axe. Before, this I used hatches - too small, too dull, and it would take too long - or mauls - far too heavy and slow and it would destroy me to swing it. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started using the first tools. Moving to an Orchard, especially one so vigorous, required rethinking and reinvestigating many of the things I did at the previous place. The ideas we have that were effective on the .3 acre lot don’t necessarily translate will to the 1.2 acre lot and I was learning that first hand.
The diseased cherry tree, like myths that build self-perpetuating systems around themselves, needs very specific equipment if we’re going to dismantle it effectively. As with many things in my life, my friends have helped get to as better understanding of what you need to do the right thing. Here a chopping axe, which is a light and skinny type of axe, is the right tool.
It is incisive similar to a good argument. Where the maul was something akin to “white people are all racists!”, the chopping axe was more “this story tells a good moral but it perpetuates the belief that our forefather who built the system were perfect beings and change isn’t needed“.
You can see that where the maul swung aggressively is still useful but it doesn’t target well. The first time I used it to take off a limb of a tree, the tree was 50ft tall and the branch that needed removal was about 20ft up. Swinging the maul at that was precarious at best and liable to hurt me just as much.
The chopper though is really precise. I could swing it more, too, and chip at the limb carefully.
“Systems are built to protect themselves.” Chop.
“We are the products of our systems.” Chop.
“Systems have to be changed by then people that benefit them.” Chop.
“And that is is good and moral and brings more happiness that the existing system does.” Chop.
I found the juncture of the limb looking much less brittle, mildew-y than the other branches we cut. The chips that came off of it were stronger and still a little vibrant which makes me hopeful that, if we keep at it, we may just take this tree back. If not, well, that’s fine. In the wake of total destruction we can always replant and it may take some help from the folks that helped me get where I am.
Afterwards, I’ll happily stand there and tell you that Washington didn’t cut down that tree. I did.