The River of My Youth boasted a swimming hole. It’s fenced off now, but when I was a girl, entire families would congregate around the gently flowing water on sultry summer evenings. Children would splash in the shallows, teens would flirt in the shadows, and parents would drink beer or snooze, each according to his (or her) inclination. The swimming hole had another attraction, too: a gnarled old apple tree that stood close to the river, the lone survivor of a once numerous tribe. In spring, the tree was garlanded in white blossoms, and by late summer the limbs hung heavy with near‑ripe fruit. I used to sit for hours in the shady oasis beneath its branches, listening to the current chuckle and purr over the gravel bars. Sometimes, as the days drew in and fall approached and the evenings became too chill to tempt swimmers, I would watch swallows dart undisturbed through the clouds of gnats that rose and fell on every puff of wind.
The little river was also where I served my paddling apprenticeship, mastering the art of handling a canoe in moving water. In time, I came to know all its bends, pools, and riffles. But today it’s the ancient apple tree that I remember best. This isn’t surprising. Long before I got my first canoe, I’d ride my bike out from the village to the swimming hole. Sometimes, I’d wade or fish, but often I’d just climb into the apple tree’s sturdy lower branches, stretch out like a leopard drowsy from eating, and watch the river flow past, the heady scent of ripening apples filling my nostrils. Birds sang. Mink loped along the riverbank. And every so often a deer would venture warily out of the adjacent woods to make a meal of early windfalls. I treasured these occasions. Deer were a rare sight in those days.
Usually, if I chose my time well, the birds, mink, deer, and I had the place to ourselves. But once the apples turned red and ripe, the gleaners began to arrive, filling baskets with the pick of the crop (and often breaking off branches from the tree while they were at it). Curiously, these snappers‑up of unconsidered trifles seldom came from the village’s poorer households. Almost all were women, and most were the wives of what passed for local gentry: doctor’s wives (the village boasted a cottage hospital back then), the wives of some members of the village board, even the wife of the town justice. It wasn’t poverty that moved these women to strip the tree of its fruit, therefore. It was avarice.
Or so it seemed to me, at any rate. I came from a family that had more kids than cash, but other than taking a small bite or two from a windfall now and then, I left the apples to the deer, the chipmunks, and the rabbits. I figured that the fruit of the lone tree was theirs by right of prior possession, and I grew mighty angry when I saw the gleaners stealing food on which so many wild lives depended. But I was powerless to do anything to check the thieves’ depredations.
Still, on the rare occasions when I chanced to cross paths with a gleaner, my native clumsiness came to the fore, and I not infrequently stumbled over her basket, scattering its contents far and wide. I always offered to collect the scattered fruit, of course, but I’m afraid I stepped on a good many of the apples in the process, with the result that the gleaner sometimes lost patience and flounced back to her car in a huff, her basket much lighter than it had been earlier. I can’t say I felt much remorse.
That was a long time ago, however, and the little river has seen a lot of development in the intervening years. So when I revisited it last fall, I expected to find it much changed. It was. New homes now crowd the riverbanks for miles on end, and the once lonely backwaters are bustling with activity, while the anglers who are old enough to remember when their river was a quiet place have a hunted, harried look about them. And as I mentioned earlier, the swimming hole is now fenced off. But the ancient apple tree still stands where it stood when I was a girl. Better yet, daughter trees have grown up around it, some of them in the very places where my clumsy younger self kicked apples from gleaners’ baskets. I suppose you could call this natural justice.
Anyway, what with one thing and another, I’ve been thinking about wild apples quite often of late. The past winter — not yet quite past, I suppose, but surely passing — was preternaturally mild. It was snowless for the most part, with the alcohol in the thermometer sometimes rising to new heights, heights seldom seen till April in most years. Which may explain why many of the birds who usually leave for warmer climes have stayed behind. These include flocks of waxwings, who’ve often stopped by to dine on the withered crab apples clinging to the tree outside my office window.
They’re not alone, of course. Wild apples nourish multitudes… Read more…
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