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This year my wife and I pruned the little plum tree out there by the swing set. Before we started cutting, we viewed several instructional videos. It’s terrific to live in an age where all this information is available on a pocket-sized touch screen so that you can stand there with your neck bent for 45 minutes and really study things out until you’re deeply and professionally confused. In this, our digital information age, the phrase “experts agree” has really taken a hit.

Eventually we weighed all our options, split the difference and commenced to snipping and chopping. I worried we’d been over-severe, but soon the tree leafed out thick and full. Furthermore, the arboreal haircut had a bonsai effect; the tree appeared more artful against the horizon (once we repositioned the chicken coop).

Just one problem: Last year, in an untrimmed state, the tree was loaded with fruit. This year, the yield is down by over half.

Off and on over the summer, I’ve wondered: Did we prune incorrectly? Over-aggressively? A week too soon or late? Did we somehow sicken rather than strengthen the tree? Did we introduce something that sapped the sap? I’m sure the experts will weigh in, although based on all those pruning videos, I fear my current schedule will not support the weight of wading through all the weighing.

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Last week, I gave the tree closer inspection. The plums in place were plump. No problem there. But they were definitely scarce on the limb. I was still at a loss as to what we had done wrong.

Then we rented a dumpster. Seems unrelated, until I tell you it was to clean out the pole barn (again) and down beside the pole barn there is a giant unconstrained natural-born plum tree that towers and splays every whichway and has never been pruned in its life. Last year it was positively laden with fruit. But this year, as I chucked yet another box of mice-nibbled keepsakes into the garbage scow, I noticed something: The overgrown plum tree has some nice plums, but they are hit-and-miss.

I spent the rest of the day pondering what I shall write up in all the journals as The One Plum Tree Effect. That is to say, what conclusions might I have carried all the rest of my life had I not looked at the unpruned tree? How many times would I have told the story about how us trimming the first tree knocked the plums out of it? When — based on my sample study of two different trees — it turns out it mighta just been the weather. Or some bug I can’t see.

Not being Aesop, I’m not sure how to wrap this up. I’m sure there’s something in here about confirmation bias, or causation versus correlation, or blah-di-blah. For now I’m working the idea that the plum trees seem to be telling me to beware first impressions formed through faulty interpretations. That firsthand observation can still lead to a false narrative. That between those two trees we’re still gonna get some jam.

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An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” (tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.

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