This is my last weekly letter for the time being. To those reading them, and to all who have written to me in return — thank you. I wanted to share a story I have told several times. Somehow it brings me to an understanding of something important and far bigger than what a surface view of something can illuminate without having stood in another person’s shoes.
My father’s family worked the fruit orchards of Washington state. When he was 14, my dad migrated to each crop harvest over the summers and sent his earnings home to support his family. I often picture him in the worker bunk houses and hitching a ride to the next town as a young teenager. Marrying my mother changed his life course. She put him through college by working as a legal secretary and he was the first in his family to earn a degree. He majored in economics.
One summer, when we had gone to the Wenatchee Valley to see everyone, my uncle Don took me to the highest overlook along the orchard road to explain to me how the big picture of orchard management worked. It was a lesson in labor, economics and the ethics required for “good, honest work.” Apple pickers were assigned specific zones in the orchard. Everyone was paid based upon how many bins were filled with fruit and hauled up to the side of the road by the end of the long day. The number of bins determined what you earned. The pickers had no influence on the market value of the apples, nor the worth of their labor at the time – that was determined by complicated systems associated with profits and hierarchies.
There are only a few weeks to clear the trees. After that, people would move on to cherries or pears or apricots.
How an apple on a tree converts into money for a family was vividly clear to me, but how their labor accrued wealth for others was far less so.
Looking across the orchard allotments from the high dirt road, my uncle asked me to point to the zones where I thought the best pickers had been. I logically pointed to where the trees were completely bare. He adjusted his hat and moved my extended arm to point at where the trees still had some fruit left on the branches. “Those are the trees that had the best pickers working there.” I was perplexed because, as I understood it, those red dots were money.
“The best there are don’t pick the trees clean,” he said. “They don’t yank the branches or strip off the leaves. They only take the fruit that is ready to yield, and are careful to leave the spur intact. If you go too fast, get greedy and pull down all of the fruit, you will hurt the tree, break the branch and damage the spur. That means the tree won’t fruit in the next season.” He told me that the best are the ones that pick the apples with a commitment to the future. They ensure there will be fruit for the next season for whomever comes along to work the harvest. Doing so is the ethic of a job well done, however tempting it might be to take more.
He showed me just how to use my hand to pick an apple so that I would leave the spur intact. It is harder than it seems, and is a wonderment when done well. Every time I hold an apple I think of that feeling and what it took to get there.
The next letter that you receive will be to announce our upcoming program. It is full of change and value and hopefulness and care. All of the artists involved have collaborated in some extraordinary ways to come together around the future possibilities we can make and share. All of the producers and managers and creative teams involved, and the entire staff and Our Executive Producer’s Council — we are all excited to offer it up to you.
We have worked on it with the intent that it will carry a great deal of wonderment, and equitably leave a spur.
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance