apple blossom on cut section of apple tree log

Mourning a tree in blossom

Its five main limbs resembled the biceps of a circus weightlifter. They emerged from the low-set trunk just a few inches above the former orchard’s soil; twenty-inches in diameter at their widest, the limbs rose like a worshiper’s arms and terminated with scores of vertical, whip-like fingers on which grew the fruit. Pocked by the work of woodpeckers and bearing the scars of previous encounters with disease, chain saws, nails and dry rot, the limbs’ tight, gray bark encased golden sapwood that surrounded a dense core of decades-old, rust-hued heartwood.

It stood in my neighbor’s yard, but its branches overhung mine, as well. Every August, it dropped hundreds of small, orange and red orbs onto both yards to the delight of ants, bees, deer and this neighbor.

I am a lover of the Malus tree and its fruit; at a prior residence, in another phase of life, I aspired to be a backyard orchardist and had some 15 varieties growing, but rarely producing. There were no apple trees at the next house, but my relocation to Sherman Street Extension in 2015 brought me full circle to cultivating Malus domestica.

Man sitting in paneled room.
The late Clarence Helwig built The Feather Cottage from rocks he collected from the fields that became an apple orchard. He is sitting the knotty-pine paneled room that is now Carl’s office. Photo courtesy of his daughter, Rogene Helwig Lockwood.

Although once an apple orchard, the two acres on which The Feather Cottage stands were given over to red oak and brush when I arrived. The apple trees, I understand, grew on the acreage to the south of the farm. This entire area was once a huge apple-producing region, and at one time there was talk of designating the main road through this area as “The Apple Highway.”

The old orchard on Sherman Street Extension eventually gave way to subdivision and the ranch and bi-level homes of the 1960s and ‘70s.  Among the few artifacts of the old orchard is the cold storage room that Clarence Helwig built to the rear of our home’s stone garage. The six-inch-thick door with “COLD STORAGE” stenciled on the garage-facing side was a portal to the harvested bounty. Former residents tell me that Clarence ran a self-service apple sales operation in the room; customers left a dollar for each bag of apples they withdrew from the shelves.

Some of those apples came from the artifact in my neighbor’s yard, the magnificent Malus with 20-inch biceps. It was the last surviving apple tree in my neighborhood, and although decades old, it still bore a heavy crop without fail.

Its yellow-and-red fruit, although blemished with scabs, worms and rot, delivered more flavor to the bite than an entire bin of perfect Northwest Red Delicious shipped 2,000 miles to the supermarket. I looked forward to early August, when the heritage tree released its fruit and I could once again nibble on childhood’s apples while going about my yardwork. Bites were strategically selected to avoid the scabs, bruises and wormholes; the resulting wound inspected before the bite was swallowed. The sight of severed worm dangling from a brown burrow in the white skin necessitated expectoration and moving on to a less-infected specimen–all part of the adventure of traveling yesterday’s gastronomical highway.

The tree was an old variety. I am guessing Gravenstein, popular in cold-temperate regions such as ours. Producing tangy, sweet, flavorful fruit, the heirloom’s North American heritage has been traced to the West Coast, where it was a favorite with commercial growers in the Sonora Region of Calafornia. Wine grapes eventually replaced Malus there, much as grapes, and houses, have replaced apples in this region.

But my neighbor’s tree was the rare survivor. Either through fate or indifference, the tree remained, continued to grow and dutifully produced and dropped its crops as offering for years after its peers were dragged off to make way for Little Boxes of all different colors.

Desiring to pay homage to my property’s heritage, the first fall I lived here I planted 10 apple trees on a sunny, low section. One does not know land until a year of rain, snow and sun have had their way with it, and in the spring, the parcel’s former life as a pond revealed itself following the cloudburst. Apples, as a rule, do not like wet feet, and in time that disdain turned to death. Many of the trees had to be replanted, on higher ground. Last summer, we enjoyed our first four apples from the orchard of mostly disease-resistant varieties.

On several occasions, I thought of taking a few scions from the heritage tree and attempt a graft onto the semi-dwarf rootstock. I even inquired of a couple local orchardists about having them attempt it, but I learned that commercial operations rely upon the nurseries to prepare grafted stock. With all the drama, work and vicissitudes of those years, the project remained a thought, nothing more.

A week ago, I heard my neighbor’s chainsaw growling in his backyard; time had run out for my grafting plans and the tree alike. The stout limbs fell that morning and throughout the afternoon as he labored against their heritage and girth. He eventually became frustrated with the struggle, knocked on our door and asked if I was interested in completing the job for the firewood.

It could not save the tree, but I could determine the wood’s fate. For the next two days, between installing a new kitchen sink and all the joys of plumbing that go with that, I worked on what amounted to “butchering” the artifact. The work was heavy, in both the physical and emotional senses, and overall bittersweet. The aromatic sap, bleeding from scores of fresh wounds, tinged the early-May air as I went about my work. Infant red blossoms, still tightly wrapped, spilled from the shaking, crashing branches. Another week or so, and the tree would have been a bouquet of hope and harbinger of harvest, but the harvest this year would be of Mallus wood, not fruit.

Wanting to preserve the straight sections of the large limbs, I chose not to reduce them to standard fireplace lengths, rather retain them as logs in the event a sawyer could make planks for some rustic project. Other pieces were cut with an eye to making doorstops or other useful items that will remain with the cottage as mementoes of this heritage. I stacked them on pallets on which to dry, next to the smaller sections of branches awaiting the splitter and, ultimately, cremation in the hearth. The wood is dense, patterned and colorful. I study it with an eye to more practical and long-lasting applications: décor, furniture or treenware. A woodturner has already accepted my offer to take some of the wood for bowls, one of which will stay with The Feather Cottage.

stack of apple firewood
Applewood is highly desired as a firewood because of its sweet aroma and excellent heat output. But this wood is too special to burn; it must live on in lumber, bowls and other items that will recall the heritage of this place.

My heart is not into burning the old tree, no matter how sweet its smoke on a December night or reliable a comfort its coals as slumber approaches. I am not one to burn history; I have spent much of my life attempting to record and preserve it, and a tree so magnificent, its branches so bowed with stories, ought not be reduced to common fireplace ashes and carbon emissions. I detest the endowed task of deciding when natural objects must give way to human fancies; I would rather God make such decisions. But my free will extends to planting, and I wait for the mail truck to deliver young Gravenstein, Cortland, Williams Pride and winesap trees. I will plant them on the high ground near the stump where withered apple blossoms mingle with spring violets and apple sawdust.

I will not live to see any of these youthful trees to mature to the fallen tree’s proportions or distinction. God be willing and merciful, I will live long enough to see their youthful branches become bouquets in the spring and flex with fruit in September. Should my years be cut short like the old tree, I pray that the next person who holds title to this land has the pleasure of eating their fruit, of watching branches become limbs, and explaining to the curious why the previous owner choose to plant Mallus rather than a swimming pool.

by

Writer, photographer, video producer and film collector, Carl E. Feather has a passion for Appalachia and its people and landscape.

One thought on “Mourning a tree in blossom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *