Back in 1973, I was looking around my newly inherited acre of land for where to build my house. I settled on a ridge between a nicely shaped oak in the front, and a valley with four apple trees in the back.
Throughout the years, the oak grew to become almost like a family member — I drew it on the front of my wedding invitation, we climbed it, the kids swung from it, and my husband and I lay in its shade with our old dog. Photos of family and friends up in its branches show up in all our old albums. It shaded and protected us with its wide green canopy.
The oak grew like it would live forever — and then it suddenly died. It was killed by gall wasps about five years ago. After it died, I thought of the haiku by Mizuta Masahide, “Barn’s Burnt Down — Now I Can See the Moon.”
After the tree was gone, a huge expanse of sky opened up that had been blocked by the ever-expanding branches. All that new sunlight changed the nature of our front yard and what liked to grow there. The moss that started crowding out the grass died, but the flowers, the lilac bushes, and the vegetable garden all liked having more sun. We missed the cool shade in summer, but enjoyed the sunshine in the winter. Plus, there was a new view of the swamp out front, and the moon at night.
The back of the house is the little bowl-like valley with the four big apple trees. They looked ancient in 1973. There were no old foundations nearby, but these trees had definitely been planted. There were four different varieties, including an unusual one that tasted like pears. Soft grass grew under the trees in a wide circle, with brush starting to grow up around the edges of the valley. We kept the grass mowed as the brush turned to woods, and the apple trees grew to 20 and 30 feet tall, with trunks that were five to seven feet around.
One of the trees died long ago, shaded out as a nearby oak grew tall. We never got around to pruning the apple trees, but always enjoyed their fruit — which was plentiful enough that the crows, deer, and my family all got some, most years.
Last March, one of the many nor’easters blew down two apple trees that grew right off our back porch. These trees shaded the porch, and grew so much that they hid the view of the whole backyard, making the porch feel private and secluded. All of a sudden, we were seeing across the valley to the little house we’d helped our son build. We could see people walking on the cross-Chappy trail that runs up the hill at the edge of the valley and beyond the apple trees.
As with the death of the oak out front, the universe seemed to be saying, “It’s time for your little world to open up some more.”
At first I missed the coziness of our enclosed back porch, and felt exposed to public view from the trail. After the apple trees fell, I planted little spruce trees which will block the view of the house from the trail — in about 15 years.
As spring turned to summer, though, I began to appreciate the new vistas — seeing all the way
across the valley to our son’s little house — even seeing people on the trail, where there had only been voices before. I especially appreciated the view of the furthest apple tree, the only one of the original four remaining, which had always been blocked by the two that blew down.
It’s a huge apple tree with new growth sprouting at the top of its 30-foot height, and almost every year it’s covered with mild-tasting Red Delicious apples. I spent many hours sitting on the back porch last summer, having sprained my ankle, and one of my favorite activities was watching the play of light on the far apple tree — how the shadows changed as the day went on. I spent hours trying to capture the tree on paper with my colored pencils and charcoals.
About 10 years earlier, we planted other fruit trees in the valley, but hadn’t done much to take care of them — and they looked it. After the two apple trees blew down, the other small fruit trees came into view, and I wanted to take care of them. I’d just taken a pruning class, so I pruned, fertilized, and repaired their deer fencing. This season, I’ll see if they make more or better fruit, but in any case, I feel better seeing them all tended to. And I haven’t totally given up on the old apple trees.
When the big pear-apple fell over, it left half its roots in the ground. After we cleared away most of the wood, one of the young branches, about five feet up the trunk, started growing like it was becoming a new tree. I don’t have great hopes for its longevity, but I’m happy to give it a try. The other tree, which broke off at the roots, sent up some new shoots, mostly nibbled by deer before I could fence them in.
Despite their unusual varieties, the four apple trees grew well in this soil and climate for probably a whole century. I don’t have much experience with this kind of thing, but I think they deserve a chance to regenerate. Last fall, Kaitlin Jones of Mermaid Farm gave me rootstock, and said once it’s established, she’d help me graft on twigs from the old trees. That’s definitely on the to-do list for the spring.