A farm grows old just like a person. Resources become depleted. You see the change most in the trees that leave the landscape, sometimes a limb at a time, sometimes in one fell swoop, toppled over by the increasingly heavy winds in Highland County. On a recent trip to Vinegar Hollow this past fall, I found an apple on the high table in the kitchen. The skin was a bright crimson, artistically mottled. It seemed fresh so I bit into it. The interior was the brightest, whitest “flesh” of any apple I had ever tasted. It was crisp and had a bewitching flavor, complex but not too complex, sweet but not too sweet. The contrast of the bright red exterior and sparkling white interior was startling. It charmed– a fairy-tale apple.
The next morning when Mike came up to let Big Red out, feed the barn cats, and spread hay bales for his cows, I asked about the apple and he said he had left it for me and that in his opinion it was the best he had ever tasted. You might not agree he said, but I did. Mike, who probably knows the farm better than any of its owners of the past two hundred years, is always trying to get me to see something that I have not had time to notice because I am a migratory bird. I told him that I wanted to make an expedition to the tree that had produced the apple.
The apple came from the aged orchard at the end of the orchard meadow, not far from the house but yet not visible from it because of a slight rise in the meadow. As absentee owners, we haven’t pruned or sprayed the apple trees in over 40 years. They have grown gangly and misshapen, each one a quirky giant. Despite neglect, the trees that haven’t fallen over bear bountifully, but most of the trees have grown so tall that only a fireman on a ladder truck could pick apples from the treetops. There are no low branches.
As we walked down, I admired the view before me—the sky a copen blue, the grass still green, and the black shapes of hunkered-down cows. Mike’s cows park themselves under the trees in the apple-falling season. An apple must be one of the great treats of their gastronomically limited lives. Mike said that were only two smallish trees that bore the fairy-tale apples. He started throwing sticks up into the trees to dislodge the few remaining apples. This process was not as easy as one might have thought. First, only a few apples came down. Second, the cows skittered towards them as fast as they could skitter, which is pretty fast when they are motivated. One does not feel comfortable grabbing an apple out of a two-ton cow’s mouth, so our harvest was small.
Mike said that he did not know the name of the apple he had picked. I have since consulted Tom Burford’s Apples of North America: A Celebration of Exceptional Varieties, but could not find a clear match. Burford spent a lifetime researching apples from a vantage point in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and he notes in his Introduction that there are thousands, perhaps even 17,000, more than the 192 varieties that he presents in this book. He also advises “As you explore this world, be aware and understanding that every apple has its moment when it expresses itself at the zenith of flavor. Seldom, however, do we have this sensory experience. Most often, the apple is trying to define itself and will be less sweet or tart or crisp or melting than it holds the potential to be….” I believe that I was fortunate to taste the fairy-tale apple at its zenith.
In Writing as a Naturalist, a class I taught in the Writing Department at Ithaca College, I often used an essay naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote called “The Brown Wasps” as a prompt for the students. It was chosen as one of the 100 best essays of the 20th century collected by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan in The Best American Essays of the Century (2000). The essay is about the yearning for remembered place. He weaves in stories of homeless humans, brown wasps, pigeons, and a field mouse. It was written in 1956 but speaks to our time, when there are so many homeless life forms all over the world. There is a line that is paradoxical and haunting—which he repeats twice. In the first instance, in describing a field mouse who is trying to make “a remembered field” on a rug in his living room from the soil in a flower pot, he writes “I have lived to see this episode repeated in a thousand guises, and since I have spent a larger portion of my life in the shade of a nonexistent tree I think I am entitled to speak for the field mouse.” A Wanamaker’s shopping mall is going up in the field where the field mouse had lived.
He repeats the line near the end, when he recalls how as a boy he and his father planted the tree at the family home on the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska. His father told him, “When you’re an old, old man you can sit under it and think how we planted it here, you and me, together.” He did not see the tree grow up because the family dissolved and “the boy was passed from hand to hand.” Sixty years later he travels two thousand miles back to Nebraska to see the tree in person. But it isn’t there; “it had perished in its first season” he assumes. A little boy on a bicycle pesters him for staring at the empty yard and asks, ‘Do you live here, Mister?” Eiseley ponders and finally answers, “I do.” The tree that he had planted those 60 years ago had lived in his imagination and sheltered him through years of wandering, insomnia, melancholia–and writing and professional success. If he had never planted the tree, it would not have lived in his mind. His “I do” is an affirmation of belonging despite the hardships of his life.
The orchard was likely planted during the Depression when many of the outbuildings were built, including the big red barn. Mike said that Roy told him that an itinerant barn builder visited Highland during the Depression and built five of these huge, sturdy, chestnut-timbered barns. I wish I knew who planted these apple trees. I wish I could have helped and watch them grow, but I am fortunate some remain. With Eiseley’s experience in mind, I visit the orchard to take notes on their literal presence before they become nonexistent. Each tree has aged differently, and each has a story or stories to tell, some of them inscribed in the bark. There is one with the neatly spaced holes of a sap-feeding bird, probably the yellow-bellied sapsucker or maybe one of the woodpeckers. Sapsuckers, as the name implies, make these holes—the proper term is “wells”– to drain sugary sap and any insects trapped therein in spring when the sap is rising so plentifully. Another tree seems to be “bleeding” from several large holes, perhaps those of an insect borer. I am interested in their life histories and smitten by the beauty of the heartwood, bleached like driftwood. One highly branched tree is outside the orchard fence. It has several main trunks, just one of them covered in lichens at the top, and a froth of fine branches. The two trees that produce the fairy-tale apple are small, perhaps because they are on a slope, or maybe that is just their habit.
Apple trees have long been an important food source in the remote, mountainous areas of western Virginia. When doing research for a book on the farm, I came across “Answer at Once”: Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park, 1934-1938, edited by Katrina M. Powell. In 1928, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Public Park Condemnation Act claimed three thousand acres of land in order to establish the Shenandoah National Park, forcing the relocation of 500 families. It was a messy business that made their hardscrabble lives even harder, especially during the Depression.
And the rules were confusing, so soon-to-be dispossessed family members began writing letters to the park superintendent and park rangers to negotiate during the process. Many of the writers were barely literate, so it is a sign of their desperation that they wrote at all. Many signed their letters with “answer at once” or “ancer at once” or “I want you to answer at once” or “write Back at once.” They asked for permission to take the windows and boards of houses that had been condemned and armfuls of “down wood” and … apples. On May 1, 1936, Davis Louis Dyer wrote park ranger Mr Lassiter from Oldrag, Virginia:
Harry Berry is moving out of the park to Pennsluvinia and how about me moving in that house the house I am living in is all to pices almost it leaks so bad con hardly find a dry place in the house when it rains and it ant going to be no fruit where I live this time and like to get the fruit at that Place answer reel soon.
Six days later Mr. Lassiter received a similar request from Mrs. John R. Nicholson:
Dear Mr Lassister i Live in the Park near Oldrag Va and Wood Like to have the Place that Mr. Harrie Berry is Leaving there is apples there and a good house the house i am in Verry Sorry So he will Leave next week So please you write me a permet For the place until the home Steds are Redy So please Mr Lassiter Let me have the place and Let me no at once yours truly
There are many more letters that show how important the harvesting of apples was to the livelihood of the families. Those who had lived near an orchard on the newly declared parkland argued about which family had more right to go back to pick apples. My parents bought the farm in Vinegar Hollow in 1948, at which time the trees were fully bearing. I presume the apple orchard in Vinegar Hollow was probably planted in the early 1920s by people who were as desperate for the harvest as those writing the letters in “Answer at Once.”
When the apple trees flowered, my mother would remind me that one of her favorite lines was “the apple tree, the singing and the gold.” Being of a literal cast of mind, I always pondered what the writer meant to suggest with the “the singing and the gold.” Pollinators? The bees humming around the trees and the golden honey to follow? I also assumed the line was from a poet like Robert Frost, and so was surprised to find that Euripedes was the writer, one whom I have never read. Now, however, having read this “Chorus,” I feel connected.
by: Euripides (480-406 B.C.), translated by Gilbert Murray,
Chorus from Hippolytus
Could I take me to some cavern for mine hiding,
In the hilltops where the Sun scarce hath trod;
Or a cloud make the home of mine abiding,
As a bird among the bird-droves of God.
Could I wing me to my rest amid the roar
Of the deep Adriatic on the shore
Where the water of Eridanus is clear,
And Phaeton’s sad sisters by his grave
Weep into the river, and each tear
Gleams a drop of amber, in the wave.
To the strand of the Daughters of the Sunset,
The Apple-tree, the singing and the gold;
Where the mariner must stay him from his onset,
And the red wave is tranquil as of old;
Yea, beyond that pillar of the End
That Atlas guardeth, would I wend;
Where a voice of living waters never ceaseth
In God’s quiet garden by the sea,
And Earth, the ancient life-giver, increaseth
Joy among the meadows, like a tree.
My purpose here is to present observations and document these apple trees to gain the right to speak for them, as Loren Eiseley did for his field mouse. As he suggests, trees connect us from one generation to another, and we say “I do” when we realize we have chosen to belong and can find “Joy among the meadows, like a tree.”