summer/fall 2007 no. 9
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summer/fall 2007 no. 9
The Last Appletree
by David Appelbaum
I am round and yet, yet when you cut me,
There are the five points of a perfect star.
Who am I?
The appletree was a riddle to me. It was a gnarled silhouette in an early dusk, a sport that had escaped from the domestic orchard downwind. Far from farmland or pasturage, it stood alone, a single tree in a glen halfway up the mountain slope. As I looked from below, a bright winter star shone at the top ó Albadaron. In the wind, it was eclipsed momentarily by a withered apple clinging ó solitude to that high branch. This was December, before first snow.
I was finding my way home from an afternoon of carriage trails. To save time, I had bushwhacked from abandoned high meadows through gullies thick with bare blueberry scruff to a perimeter marked by a stonewall. A hundred years ago, when the area was populous, work had been done to indicate the boundary line of a farmerís field. Now the same work was a forgotten relic ó a new-growth forest. It was here the appletree stood, alone it was dead.
The symbol did not escape me. A dead appletree, a mark of colonial American, outlined by winter dust, beside an abandoned property marker a complex feeling passed through me was it nostalgia for a bygone day of heroism? Awe for the iron hand of nature that forever sweeps the fruits of cultivation from the face of the land? Or sadness at the blanket of forgetting that covers every deed? The rest of my way home was wrapped in thought.
A few days later, I came back to the tree. A nor'easter had blown in, drenching the mountainside with a cold, heavy rain. Frost heaved the soil under layers of soggy leaves. Walking uphill was treacherous, yet the absolute emptiness of the woods (who but a fool would hike today?) was exhilarating. As I entered the abandoned meadow, a piliated woodpecker burst out from the oaks. The appletree itself seemed more ordinary, even if an alien in this province. A closer inspection of the tree revealed how well adapted it was. In a hollow at its base a family of squirrels had laid their winter provisions. On a lower branch, hornets hung a paper city. In the crook of another branch, a robinís nest was dripping mud down the trunk. What I had mistaken for an apple on an upper branch was in fact a gall.
That completed my harvest of errors, or almost. Hadnít I believed the tree a native to these parts even if not to this field? But that too was wrong. The apple was no native to the shores. Graftings had been brought by early colonists from Europe. The apple was as European as the croissant though its origins were in the Caucuses where many bold inventions first leapt into existence. This tree (I was guessing) may have been an Antwerp an early variety that farmers planted when agriculture here was shifting to fruit cultivation. Antwerp. The name had a medieval ring to it. I imagined a fortressed port, already busy with commerce before the Dutch Reformation Light heavy, northern, and slanted and a grim propriety the color of life. The French Huguenots who had first colonized the field I walked in made their exodus from the persecution of Europe through that city. Perhaps on one cloudy day a week before passage, Abraham Hasbrouck went into the nearby countryside and bought a half-dozen appletree seedlings, returned with them wrapped in sturdy Flemish burlap, and continued with his extensive preparations. Then, weeks later after his family had safely landed in the patent granted them by the Dutch East India Company, he took the package, unfurled the cloth, and planted them in the six holes he had carefully dug. The dead specimen I had found some three hundred years after would have been a sport from that original Eden.
There is something in the leaveless silhouette that signifies its Old World origin, or maybe origin, period. I have gazed at appletrees starkly outlined in early December twilight, standing firm in the upland orchard. Although part of it is culture and judicious pruning, I am reminded of the alliance between humankind and this tree that dates back to the epoch of hunters and predators. That tree whose Ďmortal taste brought disobedience and all our woes,í was one of the two trees of the garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge I am not thinking of that now, as I recall the gnarled outline, but a stark, unadorned beauty. How can I explain the primitive impression? This is a beauty whose lineage comes from across the sea, from the time of high civilizations and deep meanings, when minds penetrated into the deeps and brought back pure forms ó forms that could evoke in people their place in the succession of earthly time, and heavenly as well. The beauty of the edge of time, before plunderers throw human wealth into the abyss and burn libraries and dismantle the cross again: that beauty is composed for me by this last appletree.
Its winter form also makes plain an otherwise forgotten family secret. Appletrees belong to the genus Rosaceae, the rose family. Rose of Beatrice, of prayer and the beatific vision, of composite loveliness, of the supreme mystery that even the common garden holds. The apple is in fact the rose. Twisted boughs and spindly limbs that sprout myriad of thorn-like suckers give the impression of a well-established climbing rose. As a boy, I would stand in front of one such climbing rose that had found a home under a pin oak, to whose lower branched it had climbed. A bloom or two would appear there in summer, but what I loved best was its winter toughness, the weave of thorn that would dangle in the brief twilights of the yearís midnight. That beauty was a riddle. What drew my attention to it? An association with death? A nostalgia for life, for leaf and flower? An acknowledgement of the cost of surviving in this world? Year after year in the dead of winter, I would find my way down to that edge of the woods, far from the appletrees I now speak of, to behold this single climbing rose.
One can find the rose inside the appletree. Apple wood is tough, briar-y. Pipe makers favor a good chunk of it from which to carve a ___ or a ___. For a time in my life, when I was a smoker, the subliminal hint of apple I tasted with the tobacco was so pleasing to my senses that I got in the habit of moistening my pouch with a slice of red delicious or winesap. It was as if, in the crucible of the smoking bowl, secret alchemical processes released vapors that had a definite effect on my character. Those years, I took my apple in most directly, bypassing digestion altogether and on my breath there lingered the sweet exhalation of the orchardís beauty. It was at that time that I experimented with a vegetarian diet that consisted, to a large extent, of peanut butter and apple. I would eat the apple whole, stem, core, and seeds, mindful of disbelieving friends who warned me about high concentrations of arsenic there. But that wasnít all there was to the apple of my life. For several winters, I bought firewood from a woodman who was systematically cutting an extensive orchard whose trees had outlived their profitability. Over the years, apple growers have chosen uniformity over diversity of crops, looking to how easily the pick is, whether it bruises, and how well it can be shipped and stored. Many, many varieties, once wide-spread, are now impossible to find. This was possibly an orchard of Gravensteins, of carefully balanced taste but thin skin, that would be replaced by more Delicious or Macintosh, neither of which was susceptible to bruising. Anyway, it was my profit since those winters filled the well-warmed house with the redolence of apple wood in the evenings; and in the spring, the compost pile, where I dumped the fine, white ash from the stove, still had a ghost of that same fragrance.
It is also true that the apple, as a genus, is as this lone tree was, a gypsy. The apple has no regard for metes and bounds. Its seed travels widely. The folk hero Johnny Appleseed is a literary embodiment of the fact that deer and raccoon, who frequent autumn orchards for a windfall, pass seeds along in their droppings. The treeís preference for soil is not very discriminating. Most any well-drained field or hillside will do, though swampiness is repulsive. Modern horticulture has changed this since many varieties now are cross-breeds and their seeds incapable of germination. This one, however, did not fall into that category. I found myself wondering about its provenance. Was its migration by wildlife or did some settler bring stem or seed with him as he made his way west from the crowded colony? Though less than ten miles from town as the crow flies, in his day that would have meant a couple of hours on horseback, if a horse could be spared, or more likely, a few hours bushwhacking across a brambly plateau. Besides, the hillside had an agreeable southern exposure and it was easy to imagine the man seated on a log outside the cabin door chewing an apple as the sun disappeared over the western hills.
That was my mind mostly. Look though I might, I could find no ruins of any structure around the tree. Perhaps it had burned to the ground ó sill logs and all ó in incandescence on a dry summer day or else it never had been. Nor did the ubiquitous stone walls extend this high up the hill. In the days when (strange to say) the region was more populous, this portion was never brought under cultivation. It was dedicated to the wild, with a pathway or two crisscrossing it. Then the tree had been a loner, a pioneer, a true alien squatting on nativesí soil, an outpost of another civilization. I come back to the first impression I have been trying to convey through these ramblings: the appletree against a winter twilight. Are we not strangers on this planet, made to find our way between earth and heaven? I donít mean we were brought here from elsewhere, on the chariots of the gods or some other loopy campfire tale. But that we are strange to ourselves, that we start at our own shadow, jump at the sound of our own voice, are terrorized by the look in our eyes from the bathroom mirror ó these things I mean. We are that drop of water that keeps apart from the glass of it until finally its surface tension gives way and it is one with the others. I mean that we are apart from the life given us, and only through suffering reminders are we called back to a wholeness. The image of a single apple tree is one such summons.
I was going to speak of the endless varieties of fruit tree since their names form a poem, but I seem to have found a truer purpose in saying these things. Our biggest fear, it appears, is reality. Itís that uncertainty that brings me to grasp at the straw of idealism. Not only is it uncertain what the next moment will bring ó love or death or, worse, betrayal ó but it is equally uncertain what this moment is bringing. That is a maddening thought, and so much more than a thought. It is the gut feeling that nags me to take a closer, more discerning look at where I am. The flesh of the apple, the story goes, lulled us into a forgetfulness. It brought the fear of not knowing, which is what the future is big with. But pregnancy is not a disease, though we continue to treat it as such. That fear is, as some have noted, the only gift that did not come from God, and being not God-given, it is as alien to our nature as the appletree is to this land. Yet both have taken root and both serve to enrich the native environment, though differently. The silhouette of the ancient tree at winterís dusk sends chills down the spine, to an equally ancient memory of disobedience. Iím not saying the image calls us to righteousness but that it somehow reminds me of how, in the wider picture, we donít really know why we are here or what we are here for. It is profoundly disturbing, the way a deeply unsettling fear is.
I donít think there is resolution to the issue. I want to say that the primitive dread is the price of wakefulness, but I truly am ignorant in the matter. Perhaps my groping is to explain an organic event, a charged one that provokes a momentary about-face in myself, but the effort is vain. Reality is too fine and evanescent or my thought too accustomed to controlling my experience, channeling it into curiosity, complacence, or interest. There is reason to what an image suddenly jumps out of a landscape to become a sphinx and riddle one. The artist makes much of the event, ascribing it to inspiration and then gives praise to the muses for what is created. But I feel that things speak to us in their language, for their purpose, and not in our speech or to our ends. Making art is a sideshow. They, like the appletree, are oracles waking us again to the enigma, ourselves. But they arenít doing this for us, as faithful servants or minions, though we might like to believe it is so. Their awareness is more primordial and encompassing. They must be aware that their continuance depends on us, on our facing the riddle. The whole planetís does. Given the cataclysms of pollution, deforestation, overpopulation, and plundering natural resources, the survival of each depends on our restoring ourselves to balance. For millions of species, it is already too late. But even a favored one, like the apple, has been called into service, for to avoid this end is the imperative, the natural imperative.
The riddle neuters the impulse to control. I suppose Iíve come around to saying that the bare appletree, in that wink of twilight, is real and that by looking at it, I see through my little window onto reality. In its icy grip, I can do no more than is asked of me, which is to be there for it, fear and all. I donít really see my way through the dilemma but somehow suspect it has to do with my smallness. There was the tree and there, beyond the faux apple at the top, was a star. I was the bottom of that ladder, though I like to think of myself as the top. To acknowledge the immensity beyond the immensity of myself, that tree was an incomparable help. I commend you to find one yourself
Copyright © 2007 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. New Paltz, NY. All rights reserved.