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After spending a few hours putting wood in, topping off the oil barrel, raking up the last of the sticks and twigs and generally being responsible (not an easy task for me!), I developed the sudden urge to head for the woods and a secret apple orchard I’d found last year while deer hunting during the early archery season. By then the orchard was ripe with fruit and choked with grass, saplings, briars and other low-growing cover. There was a maze of trails leading from tree to tree made by bears, deer, raccoons and assorted other apple eaters, in some cases so low and tight that I could not get through them except on hands and knees.
I marked the spot in my notebook and went back this spring to widen some of the trails with a brush cutter so I could have an easier time of it when fall came and I was in the mood for applesauce, apple pies and other related treats.
I was excited to get out there and see what types of apples were waiting for me. I’d expected little or no fruit to be had after this long, hot summer, but apple trees make their own rules, and I found enough different varieties to fill my pack basket in less than 30 minutes.
Good as commercial apples are, I find Maine’s “wild” apple crop to be more appealing. I don’t mind blisters, blight and rust spots – I can peel them off and end up with a nice, big pot of apples ready to boil down into sauce; or I can chunk them up for pies and muffins.
Truth be known, the attraction of those old orchards isn’t really their fantastic apples, which are still weighing down the limbs 75 or 100 years after they were planted by enthusiastic, forward-looking homesteaders whose plans obviously didn’t work out. The houses and barns are gone, the animals and gardens are gone . . . all that remains now are the stone foundations and field borders and those stoic, somber trees that have done what was expected of them for all these many years.
I feel some slight connection with those old settlers, imagining what they must have thought and done and endured just to get those walls built and those trees started. Those were the days of toil and struggle, little money and a tremendous dependence on the soil and the weather – far greater challenges than we have now.
I like to sit on a fallen limb beneath those apple-laden trees and ponder the differences in my life compared to what went on in the late 1800s, and always come away with a greater appreciation of what those folks suffered through and how lucky I’ve been in my time.
I spent 12 years “homesteading” the way they did it, cutting and peeling my own trees that went into my house, digging every stump out of the ground by hand and building root fences to keep the goats in and the bears away. My firewood and food came off my own land, and though I did make use of kerosene and propane for lights and cooking, most of what I had and did back then was with and from the land.
I can at least appreciate the effort and sacrifice of those who planted these old apple trees, and I give them a little salute when I pass their grave stones on the way out of the woods, my pack basket laden with the fruit of their labor. I usually stop and sit beside those old settlers and enjoy an apple or two, wishing I could close my eyes and hear their stories.
Most of the orchards (and grave sites) I visit are on high ground that, with some imagination, can be viewed as they were long ago, surrounded by cleared pastureland with soothing vistas all around. A forester’s eye can detect the ages of the trees that now grow out of the foundations and bar-ways where oxen and wagons once passed, and it’s easy to conjure up visions of busy farmstead communities that are no longer there.
This latest orchard cemetery I’d found last year contains headstones dating from the 1700s, a rarity even for those who enjoy making rubbings of the old, interesting grave markers of the era. Some of those folks lived to be 90 or more – what great stories they would have to tell! Imagine being able to talk to someone who lived in your neighborhood in the 1600s. They speak to us now only through the apples their descendents left behind, but even those are slowly dying out for lack of care. Those stone foundations and walls will one day be the last vestiges of their having passed this way, a lasting legacy compared to what most of us modern folk will leave behind.
For decades I have made it a habit to bury an apple or two in the corners of those long-forgotten hill-top cemeteries, thinking some day 50 years from now another adventurous soul will wander by and pick the makings of an apple pie from it. I have been back to some of those sites and, to my surprise, have found sturdy trees making every effort to grow and thrive. Most are nipped back by deer, porcupines and hares, but every so often I’ll find one patient sapling that has grown strong and tall, perhaps one day to drop its apples among the very folks who began the process hundreds of years ago.
This is all very romantic, fanciful stuff, I know, but it is part of what I look for every time I head into the September woods with a pack basket on my shoulders. I’ll come home with a pack full of apples and a head filled with local history – not a bad haul after all, and certainly more satisfying than raking leaves in the back yard!
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