When I moved into my current home 5 years ago, I was happily surprised to find that I was now officially the proud owner of an apple tree. Driving into the yard for the first time after signing the mortgage paperwork, that apple tree was the very first feature of the new house and surrounding property that drew my attention. There it stood in the center of my front yard, its branches tangled and matted, swirling in every direction as if a whirlwind had twisted them into place. Its jagged trunk was forked with sucker branches that had been left unattended from the previous year.
I had never owned or tended a fruit tree before. That being said, it was obvious to even my untrained eye that this one needed work....and a lot of it.
After we had settled in to our new abode, I began doing research on how to tend, and care for apple trees. I don't know why, but I had already grown somewhat attached to my mangy, wild looking fruit tree, despite its sad state of disrepair. Somewhere inside myself, I found a desire to see it become vibrant, beautiful, and fruitful once again.
As I researched, I soon discovered that, apple trees, like many fruit bearing plants, require pruning in order to be consistently fruitful. After searching through fruit grower's websites and online blogs, I also found that there were only a few simple rules by which to abide when pruning an apple tree:
1) Remove all branches and sucker branches (new growth) that have grown vertically in either the upward or downward direction.
2) When two branches intersect, one of them must be removed. Remove the weaker of the two.
3) Remove all branches that are growing inward, toward the tree trunk.
4) Remove all branches that are growing higher than can be easily reached with a latter or harvesting equipment.
5) Remove any dead, weak or sickly branches.
There were some websites that added additional rules, but generally speaking, most of them could be boiled down to the five that I have just related to you. The concept is essentially that the tree has only a limited amount of energy and resources at its disposal with which it can produce new growth and fortify old growth. By removing the branches that will not produce fruit, the tree is then able to direct all of its resources to the remaining branches, and thus, the tree becomes stronger and more fruitful.
So, with this information in mind, I set to work with my pruning shears in March of the following year. Methodically, I snipped, clipped, and sheared away at the limbs of my apple tree, being very careful to see that I was abiding by all of the pruning rules that I had just learned.
A brush pile of branches began to grow on my front lawn. As it grew larger and larger I started to feel more and more uneasy. Was I doing this right? I was abiding by the principles, but why were there so many branches in my brush pile? Still, I forged on, comforting myself with the reminder that I was following the advice of tree growers who had done this for longer than I had been alive. They all agreed in a unified voice, follow the principles, and your fruit tree will flourish. What's more, they all had very fruitful trees which proved their methodology quite exquisitely.
When I had finished off the last of the cutting, I stood back to admire my work. As I surveyed the damage, I was absolutely aghast at what I saw. Where once had stood a full, wild looking bush of a tree, now stood what appeared to be little more than a trunk with a few main branches attached to it. I thought to myself, "How in the world could any tree survive after enduring such a hack job?"
So great was my dismay, that in the evening I actually searched through the online catalogs of local tree vendors to see how much it would cost to replace my now bald and seemingly mangled apple tree. As I peered out the window again and again I became convinced that I had surely killed it. There was nothing left but the naked skeleton of what used to look like a tree. I debated for some time, but at the end of the day, I decided to let it be for one more year. If it was truly dead then I could always replace it the following spring.
Time passed. Spring turned to summer, and summer, to late summer. The apple tree that I was so sure that I had killed, had bloomed extravagently and grown more branches and apples than I ever could have dreamed! I couldn't believe it! How was this possible? What's more, as the years have worn on, I continue my pruning every spring in the exact same way, and every year, my efforts have been rewarded with bright, golden, crunchy apples.
This spring while I was pruning, I found myself nestled deeply in thoughts concerning Systema, my students, friends, training partners, and our training academy - The Warrior's Forge. As the pruning work continued to shape and form the tree in front of me, I suddenly had a small moment of enlightenment. This tree was not that different from Systema. Both are alive, growing, changing and vibrant. Each branch on the tree was very much like a movement or group of movements, with the larger branches stemming from the trunk and giving birth to smaller limbs in much the same way as topics of study branch forth from the basic principles, to produce a wide variety of wonderful and interesting movements.
The branches that I was pruning were those that use up the energy of the tree without producing any fruit and/or hinder those limbs that do. Many of these non producing branches are very much alive, and even fast growing, but they do not serve the overall purpose of the tree, which is to produce fruit and in doing so, produce seeds that will ultimately grow more apple trees.
This concept and its application to the study of Systema is replete with similarities. There are many concepts, attitudes and movements that will begin to grow and branch forth during the study of Systema. It takes a watchful eye and and humble heart to understand which of these are functional, powerful and useful, and which are excessive, weak, and ultimately have a negative effect. To me, the word "excessive" is one that has occupied my thoughts during training often lately. Excessive movements will dilute the potency of one's Systema in the same way that excessive branches dilute the energy of the tree. This is indeed a very interesting concept to meditate upon.
In addition to this, there is a powerful similarity between Systema and the afore mentioned pruning principles:
1) The vertical growing sucker branches (either upward or downward) are much like movements that are excessive. They may look like growth initially, but ultimately, they drain the life of the tree and bear no fruit in return.
2) The branches that intersect are much like areas of uncertainty within one's self. Sometimes you will find that you have cultivated two attitudes or movement sets that are at odds with one another, and hinder each other. When this happens, the weaker of the two must be removed or changed so that the stronger will grow unhindered.
3) Branches growing inward toward the tree trunk are much like selfishness and self pity. Systema grows by individuals reaching out and touching the lives of those around them. Much of the purpose in fruit tree pruning is to cause the tree to grow outward rather than upwards, downwards or inward. By doing this, the fruit becomes more accessible and abundant. Selfishness and self pity will make you grow inwards, thus limiting the extent of your growth and providing you with very little positive effect on those around you.
4) The branches growing too high to be accessed can be alikened to many things, but pride is what I will key on. Branches that grow very high on a tree may make the tree look quite large and full, but they will also make it very difficult for fruit to be retrieved from them. Similarly, training that stems from pride and self exaltation may seem impressive, but ultimately it will negatively effect the production and usefulness of the trainee.
Also, fruit grown on such high limbs is often inaccessable and can therefore spoil while still attached to the limb or fall heavily to certain damage and destruction because of the height at which it began. Think well upon these things my friends.
5) Dead, weak or sickly branches are very much like ineffective movements that produce nothing at all. As one explores movements during a given training session, it is so very important to recognize ineffective, weak movements right away, and take immediate action in removing them from the work.
There is much more that could be said in this regard. In fact, with a bit of careful thought, there are many, many truths and similarities that could be harvested from such a simple task as tending to a fruit tree.
With this is mind, I would like to end with a single thought:
New students often ask me, "How long will it take until I get good at Systema." The best answer that I am able to give is as follows:
Systema mastery is more than learning and reproducing movements. It is an overarching philosophy, and as such, must be incorporated into one's life. You will gain ground quickly in your own Systema when you learn to practice it in your every day life, and not just when we are training at the academy.
Learn to see the Systema of life. In your work. In your play. In your family. In your travel. In your relationships. In simple everyday acts such as pruning an apple tree. As you do, your Systema will grow and your life will become more and more fruitful. Happy training my friends.
The Warrior's Forge