»  Reprinted from the March 2009 issue of Louisville Bar Briefs   «

The truth, at its coldest, is stark and undeniable. These are hard times, not just in the legal profession and higher education, but in our Commonwealth, the United States, and the world at large. Layoffs, budget cuts, and business closings have become routine events, and good times seem unlikely to return soon.

As though our collective misery could sink no deeper, I began thinking about this column amid the frozen wreckage of Louisville's ice storm. Tree branches encased in ice embodied, in a way at once beautiful and treacherous, the hardship that many of us suffered as we lost power and heat. The Indigo Girls expressed the frustration that our city and region felt:

Taking dead trees down before the winter freeze
I said let 'em rot and fall where they may

Nothing beats the power of a cold snap to remind you of things that matter. Among the many other joys I have reaped from my tenure as law school dean at the University of Louisville, living again in my native region of the country has ranked quite high. My time between Big Muddy and the Big Sandy reminds me of a lesson known broadly across the up-country south. As we ponder how long we must "tote the weary load," how many "more days till we totter on the road," that lesson is worth telling and learning again.

Prunus persica, the ordinary peach, is prized around the world as one of nature's sweetest treats. In America, only the apple exceeds the peach among commercially cultivated fruits. Peach-friendly places around the globe, however, fall within two narrow bands, one in each hemisphere. Extreme cold, though not enough to kill the trees themselves, can kill a season's new buds. And peaches ripen fully only in summer's heat.

Most of all, though, peaches have a chilling requirement. In technical terms, peaches require a certain number of chill hours in order to undergo vernalization, or the competence to flower in spring after exposure to prolonged winter cold. Perhaps the best colloquial expression of this folk wisdom (albeit one tinged with longing and impatience) comes from the folk singer-songwriter, Gillian Welch:

Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall
If I can’t have you all the time, I won’t have none at all

A Song Dynasty painting of peach blossoms and a bird, attributed to Emperor Huizong (1082-1135).

Bad times will and do befall us. That is a lesson inherent in legal education, an inference embedded deeply within the moral fabric of what we learn and practice as lawyers. We counsel our clients to take due diligence, to exercise reasonable care, to take such precautions as are warranted by the discounted probability and magnitude of foreseeable loss. And now bad times, unprecedented in living memory, have swept across our profession as part of a global economic crisis.

Those of us whose jobs and businesses remain intact are the lucky ones. We advise others, private clients and public constituents alike, to stay the course, to aid those less fortunate, to keep the faith. As well we should. In the teaching and practice of law, no less than in the cultivation of peaches, a season of cold is not only inevitable. It is affirmatively necessary.

Let us therefore confront the cold, as we must, and clear the trees that winter has laid before our paths. Frost today, fuzz tomorrow. Though we hope for a peach harvest we have yet to see, we do with patience wait for it. And that fruit, when at last it will have ripened in a summer yet to come, will taste on account of this winter all the sweeter.