On the wisdom of the Avocado Tree.

Spring arrived recently, and as such I have been trying to grow an avocado tree.

After watching numerous videos on Youtube that suggest that the process is actually a relatively straightforward and simple one, I assembled my three pronged, alien-countenanced avocado pip on my windowsill. And then just in case it didn’t work I assembled four more, to better my chances that one will produce fruit.

20151123_131145

The idea is to suspend the avocado seed half-in and half-out of a cup of water using toothpicks to hold it in place. The seed is then supposed to split in half and grow roots from the bottom, and a stem from the top as can be seen here:

avocado

 

However, when yesterday passed the two month mark and still only one of my avocado seeds had split, I began to narrow my eyes at the jars on the windowsill.

Where is the stem?!

This pip is making a fool of me, I thought gloomily to myself. The instructions online had trees growing in less than two weeks! And I even named mine! I gave it a name and it won’t even grow! What kind of insolence is this?!

The avocado tree is a tricky creature. From what I have heard it can take anywhere between three to twelve years to produce fruit, and some apparently never do. It is also said that trying to grow an avocado from seed will produce fruit of a lesser quality than the parent, and when they do grow they are said to reach around 60 ft. Not really something that will fit in my backyard. So with all this in mind it seems foolish to attempt the challenge, and far wiser to leave it to the experts.

However, just as I was contemplating throwing out my stubborn plants and clearing the windowsill of jars I was seized by a suspicion. For a long time now I have entertained the theory that there is wisdom to be extracted from everything, even the most unassuming objects – and as such it occurred to me that perhaps this uncooperative tree was trying to teach me something.

avocado tree.jpg

In an interesting article about different cultural conceptions of time Richard Lewis highlights the differences between the general understanding of time in Eastern and Western cultures.

In a profit-oriented society, time is a precious, even scarce, commodity. It flows fast, like a mountain river in the spring, and if you want to benefit from its passing, you have to move fast with it. Americans are people of action; they cannot bear to be idle.

He also includes a diagram which illustrates his point: that time in the popular Western conception is something that moves quickly forward and that therefore must be consumed carefully:

american conception of time

Conversely, Lewis writes about ‘multi-active time’, and ascribes it to mostly Mediterranean cultures such as those of Italy and Spain. This view questions the linear understanding of time as something that shoots forward in a straightforward manner, as something that can be organised and plotted in a predictable fashion.

“I have to rush,” says the American, “my time is up.” The Spaniard or Arab, scornful of this submissive attitude to schedules, would only use this expression if death were imminent.

My favourite conception of time in Lewis’ article however, is the idea of cyclic time. Wise use of time in this conception involves making space in one’s timetable for reflection as well as action. Lewis ascribes this view of time to predominantly Buddhist cultures in which time is viewed as a cycle: of day following night, life following death, and rejuvenation following deterioration. He describes it as a ‘pool one could gradually walk around’ while one considers all the options within.

western linear and oriental

Similarly, in Issue 41 of The Idler, edited by the gentlemen from Q.I., there appears an article entitled ‘The Truth About Time’. In this article Brian Dean address the same idea as Lewis:

The view of time as a precious commodity seems to have roots in the Protestant beliefs which drove the Industrial Revolution. American business culture was the first to have workers compete against the clock to finish tasks in ever-shorter times. It was the birthplace of time-and-motion studies and Fordist assemble lines – an obsession with measuring production by stopwatch.

As Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars point out in their book The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, this obsession comes from the Puritan cultural heritage: “The Puritans were not, like those of other religious persuasions, awaiting the afterlife in quiet contemplation. They had God’s earthly kingdom to build and, given seventeenth and eighteenth-century life expectancies, a perilously short time in which to build it […] Time is the Puritan’s Great Disciplinarian and Cost Accountant.

Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars identified two predominant culture conceptions of time. they surveyed 15,000 managers from around the world and found that in the US, UK, Sweden and the Netherlands time is largely viewed sequentially, as a “race”, whereas in Japan, Germany and France, it’s viewed as a synchronised “dance”.

“Sequential time”, they argue, is seen as a threat, as it’s running out fast. The resulting anxieties lead to a preference for short-term profit-making, with paper entrepreneurs favouring creative accounting and tax avoidance over longer-term processes such as manufacturing.

“Synchronised time”, on the other hand, is seen as a friend. The past and future are but our memories and anticipation synchronised as ideas in the present – an eternal “dance” of possibilities recurring in the moment. Thus Japanese culture (which leans towards a synchronised view of time) tends to be the most long-term in its outlook.

(Brian Dean, 2008, ‘The Truth About Time’ in The Idler, issue 41, p. 32.)

Obviously both articles speak in extremely general terms, and of course there are good and bad things about both views. A disregard for the past as something that is simply over is never a good thing, but neither is it always wise to have too much faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, bringing  with it more time to complete everything we have left unfinished. Ideally we can incorporate elements of both into our day to day lives to avoid an imbalance in either direction.

And this, to return to my woefully slow-growing avocado tree, is precisely the wisdom that I suspect it is harbouring in its stemless seed. The jar on the windowsill reminds me almost mockingly that time is not something I can command. As much as we might like to order the days around, and as useful as graphs can be in arranging important tasks into manageable segments, it is important also to remember occasionally that that time cannot bullied by our timetables and wishes, and that action as well as reflection are important in any life if an imbalance towards either inaction or frenzy is to be avoided.

dead poets soc
Dead Poets Society: a graph is not always the best way to read poetry, nor the best way to approach our use of time.

After all, an understanding of time as something marketable and strictly controllable contributes to questionable phenomena such as advertising how many words one can type per minute on one’s resume, self-punishment when all the tasks on the to-do list remain unfinished at day’s end, and a mass of overworked and undervalued employees whose time has been quantified into somebody else’s schedule of productivity. An example that springs to mind is that of Foxconn’s Chengdu factory in China, where employees are allegedly made to sign ‘no suicide’ contracts stating that in the event of their suicide their families will not seek more than minimum damages or take any ‘drastic actions that would damage the company’s reputation or cause trouble that would hurt normal operations.‘ Environments and attitudes that quantify time into a controllable commodity can do an awful lot of damage.

grape assembly line
Fordist assembly lines become a terribly reductive way to approach human endeavours. They make get things done quickly but they take any joy that was to be had out of working.

factory assembly line

So. The avocado tree won’t be pushed. It will not grow according to mine or the weather’s or anyone else’s schedule. And in this there is something that can be learnt from it, especially if one is inclined to measure its productivity in narrow terms – if one defines it as valuable only for whether or not it makes fruit. On can spend years cultivating and caring for an avocado tree and it might grow to be 50ft high with magnificent purple leaves, and still it might never produce fruit. But does this have to mean that one’s efforts and the enjoyment came from the task were wasted? It doesn’t.

So if it grows I will keep it. If it lives for four years and then makes horrid fruit I should still like to keep it. Even if I labour away at it for ten years and never produces any fruit I will keep it. It will make a valuable reminder in the garden to reconsider my understanding of time every now and then, when I find myself in a hurry, with one too many assignments to finish, or a few too many errands to run. For although there may be no avocados, there is wisdom in the avocado tree.

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4 thoughts on “On the wisdom of the Avocado Tree.”

  1. This post is beautiful, lives up to the name, a window on the street, a moment taken to reflect on the passing of time. It reminds me of that famous graffito “Time doesn’t exist, clocks exist” a favourite that comes to my mind when I tell myself to “get shit done”. It also reminds me of this quote: “Try to imagine a life without timekeeping. You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie. Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays. an alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.”
    ― Mitch Albom, The Time Keeper. It is sad and beautiful, and reminds me of the many thoughts you articulate here so well xxx

    1. Ahhh! I must read this book, so many people have recommended The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Thanks for the recommendation, I shall hunt around for it, as this is exactly the kind of stuff I like to read about 🙂 And thanks for always reading and leaving such encouraging comments 🙂

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