I find myself going out in the early morning to stand next to the apple tree to see if a few of the buds have swelled. Sometimes, I test them with my fingers, looking for a little life, a bit of juice. This beloved tree keeled over in a northeast storm last fall. Its once-ample crown is crammed against the bole of a spruce. Two brown apples that the deer couldn’t reach and that the birds, for some reason, have rejected still dangle from the highest branches. Most of the roots are thrust into the air like the fingers of a monstrous arthritic hand. But what if a root or two were still anchored in the ground, still alive, and their sap began to flow, thin arteries of springtime, and the buds on the branches of the downed side of the tree began to soften and open? Can you put a tree like this back together? Can you make a half a tree out of a whole one?
To be honest, I have no idea what kind of apple tree it is. We planted it years ago when it was a skinny stick with a thatch of young roots that we bought in a bundle of dormant plants from the Soil and Water Conservation District sale in Ellsworth. Once in the ground, it took off, withstood deer and porcupines, and outlived a flurry of sapsuckers and tent caterpillars. It grew into a big tree, a centerpiece in the yard that held my gaze all year long.
In winter, I hung birdfeeders from its lower branches; it gave the small birds cover from hawks. In spring, it flowered like a bride. Cedar waxwings came in flocks to eat the petals. In summer, it was a hangout for warblers, chickadees, blue jays, robins, doves, and nuthatches busy hunting insects in the leaves or resting within the branches. The green apples, no bigger than chickpeas at the start, grew and turned a streaky deep red.
Can you put a tree like this back together? Can you make a half tree out of a whole one?
By fall, my neighbors came to pick, as did I. We got buckets, and there were so many left. The apples were tart and sweet, and they made the best applesauce. The blue jays and the chickadees pecked at the leftovers. So did the robins. The red squirrels bit through the stems and carried apples away. Once, a young porcupine tried to gnaw off the metal flashing I had wrapped around the trunk to protect the tree — from porcupines. It made a racket, and I chased it away in the dark with a hearth broom.
On early autumn mornings, with mist rising off the field, deer ate the new windfalls. I watched them chew, drooling apple juice, and saw the mouthfuls of apple move down their long gullets as if they were giraffes.
My son gave me a pruning ladder to reach up into the branches and cut away some of the weight they carried. But the tree seemed perfectly happy to me, so I never used it. Each year, the tree reached upward and outward with a vigor I found exhilarating. The dead branches were good for bird feeders and the splay of new branches, in time, grew heavy with fruit.
Above the wind, on the night of the storm, a sound like a gigantic sigh filled the clearing. At dawn, I went out to pick a few apples for breakfast and found my tree slumped on the ground like a beached whale.
I test the buds now as if it might rise again. Perhaps this is a futile, repentant gesture. But it was such a glorious apple tree. To me, it was a magic tree that could feed everyone. I was too proud to give it a sensible, cautious pruning. And pride, as we know, goeth before a fall.