Recently I was reminded of an epiphany I had while working in my peach orchard years ago. It was early in the year when the trees need to be pruned. It is amazing how many branches have to come off. When that job is finished, the orchard is littered with twigs which need to disposed of in some way. In those days, we made a big pile in an open area in the orchard, let the prunings dry, and then had a big bonfire where, at the end of the day, supper was cooked over the embers.
If you pile the branches the way they come off the tree, the pile becomes huge and there are many spaces between the branches. This makes it nearly impossible to get a fire going. So, before they were gathered, I cut them apart so they could be bundled. The children always complained about this because it meant more bending over, more picking up. But in the end they enjoyed the big fire and loved to tend it.
One day, while I was snipping the branches apart and thinking about bundling, I recalled a long-ago lesson about the Roman symbol of a bundle of sticks meant to represent community and strength. A single stick or branch can be broken easily but not a bundle. I also remembered what this bundle was called, a “fasces.” And that it was when the epiphany occurred. Rome was an empire. The strength they were after required bundling, required conformity. Everyone needed to be lined up, pointing in the same direction.
I stopped cutting branches, rested my pruning shears, and looked up into one of the peach trees. There the branches were pointing in all directions, nicely spaced so that light and air could have easy access to every part of the tree. In a healthy, well-tended tree branches are not lined up in parallel, aren't bundled. Cleaning up an orchard may require bundling; but that is perhaps not what we should expect of people.
I also recalled that “fasces” is the root of “fascism.” Uniqueness, variety, originality, difference, and non-conformity are features of a healthy society. Welcoming and making room for those who live and think in a different direction from us is a challenge but makes for a better world – just like a more fruitful peach tree.
I am currently reading Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, by Olive Patricia Dickason. It is a comprehensive and detailed history. In the pages that recount the aftermath of the 1885 Rebellion, Dickason writes, “In the rough and tumble of building nation-states and extending them into empires, unity and conformity were the social and political ideals. Much as Amerindians might have been appreciated on their own merits in philosophic or artistic circles, in the political arena they were expected to conform to the prevailing ethos as exemplified by the dominant power. The idea of a cultural mosaic within the borders of a single nation-state was not yet taken seriously, if considered at all.”
It was this passage that brought to mind that epiphany in the orchard all those years ago. I suggest it is worth our while to think about non-conformity at this point in history. We too live in an empire which exerts pressures for us to conform, to fall into line, to be bundled. Let us resist these pressures and encourage each other to think for ourselves. Let us be open to those who think and live otherwise.