On a damp morning tangled in branches, my orchard ladder refuses my tug. But, I insist. I tug again. Freed from the tree's hold, the ladder lurches toward me. My arms catch it. A theatrical samba, if not struggle, plays out. The ladder dips this way; I tip that way. Topsy-turvy, my neck bends back to see the ladder and sky swirl for one final headlong swoop. Crescendo!
Toppling it to the ground with a crash, I surrender indoors. I flop onto the sofa and flip through Molly Oldfield’s book The Secret Museum. What's this on page 33? The reality of Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree. The grand-daddy of gravity, Newton could bond with me about my ladder falling. Plus, garden-author Amy Stewart also wrote about an apple tree and I’m still thinking about that, too.
Entertain one potent little question: “What else?”
Amy’s Apple Tree: The Importance of a Second Look
There's always more than we first see or want to see. In her book The Earth Moved, Amy Stewart writes:
“There is a diagram of an apple tree pinned to the wall above my desk--an entire apple tree...What’s fascinating about the drawing is this: the part of the plant that we think of as the apple tree is, in fact, a fairly insignificant part of the full plant...
...Now that I’ve taken a second look, I see that the roots are the real body of the tree, and I wondered in a way that I’ve never wondered before...how little most of us know about life underground…
...A plant’s real beauty, its true purpose, might not lie aboveground...to find its heartbeat...its soul, you have to go underground where it lives and breathes."
What Else Might An Apple Be?
Amy was asking "what else" there was that, at first, she wasn't seeing. And, like Amy giving something a second look, Sir Isaac Newton also wondered in a way that he’d never wondered before. He let his mind wander. Newton’s friend Stukeley recalls:
“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea under the shade of some apple trees...Occasioned by the fall of an apple…[Newton] sat in a contemplative mood, why should [the apple] not go sideways...?”
Maybe, Don't Ask An Astronaut
Sentimentally, on its 2010 orbit, the space-shuttle Atlantis took along a piece of applewood from Newton's tree. The crew also packed an apple. “The plan was to drop [it] on the space station and see whether it was subject to gravity or not,” says Molly Oldfield.
The crew lost the chance to do this. One of the astronauts, and Molly's not naming names, saw the apple and ate it. After all, what else could that apple possibly have been for?
MmmMmmMmm, The Core
I'm betting the astronaut not only ate the wrong apple, but ate the apple wrong. I'm betting we all do. Turns out that if we snap the stem off an apple and then bite into it from the top, the core "disappears". We get to enjoy much more apple than we imagined possible. So, if you're certain there's not more to you, are you really certain? If so, what makes you so sure?
How To Wonder Like You've Never Wondered Before
Letting the mind wander is at odds with our fast-grab thought patterns. Our heads are playlists on repeat. Certainty makes us feel in control, even if it is only make-believe. This primal instinct worked well when we had to quickly decide whether the striped animal trotting faster and faster towards us was a tiger or a kitten. Today, seldom is anything that life-threatening.
As much as it drives us nuts, try to be okay with uncertainty. I'm trained in this disposition and it's still hard. The poet Rainer Rilke writes, “Live the questions...Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
How exactly? My apple-tree anecdotes wink at it, but better yet, here's the punchlist:
- Play with seemingly random patterns. (In my case, it was the incidence of apple trees.)
- Ask “What else?” (What are you not seeing? What else could it be?)
- Beware of grabbing fast conclusions (& eating the space shuttle's only apple).
- Try out new notions (like eating an apple from its top.)
- Be patient with everything unresolved (Don't tug your ladder so hard.)
Over time, these lead to a-ha moments, the life-changing ones. Like the soulful life-force of a tree's roots, your real beauty and true purpose wait underground to be seen. Mine too, I suppose; so, I'll head back outside and apologize to my well-meaning ladder. I'm sure there's more to her than I, at first, wanted to see.