In June, budding bunches had already begun to hang from the grapevines.
This year, there will be many grapes.
My mother planted grapevines at our Maine home who knows how many years ago, trellising them up a white-painted lattice that stands erect beside our century-old barn. My brother, a master gardener, had pruned the vines as anyone prunes ornamental vines. “They’re very healthy,” he told me, as I stood with loppers, assessing the thick mass of red, woody stems.
Healthy they were. And overabundant. If the goal was to cover the trellis wall with leaves, the vines had been pruned well. Dozens of stems competed for space, twining their tendrils around the white trellis frame and each other as they sought to push their leaves into the sun.
As for the fruit, it had become no more than an afterthought in the energetic expansion of these vigorous vines. Longer stems, more leaves, more tendrils – that was the life these vines were allowed to live. And being unconstrained, these vines chose to live with abandon. Fruitfulness? Who cared!
Abandon and abundance. The words echo with the same sounds, but have such different meanings. To live with abandon is to live, in one sense, with abundance. The abandoned life is one filled with an abundance of anything and everything. Like the grapevine inadequately pruned, it demonstrates endless energy and produces even more. Everything it does is aimed at adding to its own flow of resources. More vines make more leaves to catch more sun to produce more chlorophyll to produce more energy to produce more vines to make more leaves … The circle goes on without end until winter brings it to a temporary close. Then spring returns, and the happily abandoned vines begin once again their energetic expansion.
Abundant Life Begins with Boundaries
The abundant life happens when energies are constrained to a specific end. No more vines than are required. Only enough leaves to support the vines that are allowed. Under those limitations, the vines get the signal that their own lives are not the point. They need to make sure they prepare for the long term. And so, they start to form fruit.
Fruit, as we all know, contains the seed for the next generations of life. It also contains the nourishment for generations of other kinds of life. Birds carry fruit away. Insects bore through it to make nests for their young. Deer and other rambling animals nibble at the windfalls. And the people who grow fruit feed the people of their own families, sell to the people of their communities, and allow people in need to glean.
To make a grapevine fruit in abundance, it must be constrained. By one common standard, the gardener leaves only four branches on each vine stem. The branches are selected carefully for their vigor, but the gardener also knows that each will gain vigor by having been selected. Instead of leaving the vines to find their own way, the gardener creates supports that will allow them to find the sun, then helps them find the supports.
This Ben Horton photo of old grapevines in a vineyard
may be purchased at allposters.com.
If you’ve ever seen the vineyard that supports a winery, you understand how this works. Thick vine stems rise beneath the interwoven structures that support their branches. A winter visitor sees little but the stump-like vine stems. In midsummer, a thick canopy of leaves turns the overhead structure into a shady haven. At harvest, the grapes that have been budding below the leaves have at last filled with juicy, energetic ripeness. They are ready to pass the vine’s nourishment along to others.
When you grow grapevines, the choice between abandon and abundance is obvious. Abandon the vines to their own inclinations, and you get lots of vines. Constrain their growth to a limited few, and you get lots of grapes. Fruitfulness comes when careful constraints are chosen.
The ‘Abundant Life’ Lived with Abandon
In life, the choice can be more difficult. Living with abandon has its own kind of abundant rewards. You turn from one activity to another, try one new thing after another, “ping” the pleasurable dopamine rush over and over.
But as the grapevine teaches me, constraints are essential to the kind of abundance that produces fruit to nourish others.
These weeks and months and even years, as I mourn three great losses, feel like times some of the phony abundance of abandoned living is being pruned that I might have an abundance that brings fruit.
I can only hope.
As for the vines: this year, there will be many grapes.