The Tree that Shouldn’t Be

A bestselling author and biologist solves the mystery of an ancient apple tree in Weld.

By Bernd Heinrich

Few icons of the past evoke romantic nostalgia as old stone walls and stone-lined cellar holes do. Alongside these indelible reminders of pioneer life in the rugged hills of western Maine is living history as well. Here and there a lilac hangs on by an old cellar hole, and in the woods are trunks of fallen apple trees moldering into the ground, and more commonly, a standing stump. Fifty years ago I found gnarled old live trees fighting for light against the onrush of the returning forest. On crisp autumn days we flushed grouse, saw porcupine, and discovered the fresh spoor of deer that came to feed on the fallen fruit at night. On every hunting excursion I took a turn by and through the old apple orchard. Most of these favorite places of boys and other wild animals are gone now, and you have to look closely to see the clues of their former existence. But my story is about one apple tree on a remote hill in Weld that stood its ground for a long, long, time.

I maintain a clearing in the woods on York Hill, where I was rebuilding the collapsed stone walls of an old cellar hole to make the foundation for a cabin. Most of the rocks of the old farmhouse foundations had collapsed into a pit-like depression where a hefty white birch, an American ash, a red spruce, and a sugar maple tree had grown. I cleared the trees and the brush and chopped, ripped, and tore out a network of roots before I could start resetting rocks. Nearby were granite blocks, now partially submerged, that had been part of the foundations for two barns. A patch of rhubarb still grows near one.

I found numerous rusted hay scythes, horseshoes, ax heads, metal hubs of carriage wheels, pottery shards with pink and blue floral designs, railings from a horse-drawn carriage, plow blades, odd metal rings, lengths of chain, innumerable square nails, hinges, a blue enameled tin cup, and charcoal. Had a lantern tipped over by someone imbibing a lot of hard cider? Had it lit the hay as someone was milking the cows in the evening? Generations had come and gone and the records of their lives have blurred. But there were stories here, and I thought, “If only trees could talk.”

Silent for a long time, one tree, a nearly dead apple, eventually did talk. It had first caught my eye around 1980 because its short trunk was unusually thick. It possessed only one thin and long live shoot that was in a losing fight to reach sunlight through a rapidly closing canopy of young ash, maple, and white pine trees. The apple tree was located, curiously, next to a large rock pile. At the time when I was thinning out a future sugar bush, I didn’t give this tree a thought. However, in late July 2009, when even that long, thin shoot had been dead for at least twenty years, the tree suddenly assumed a potential significance because the artifacts I had found at the nearby farmstead site had piqued my interest in the history of the hill. Henry Braun, a poet who lives a mile or two on the other side of York Hill, had written, “It isn’t far in Maine to the end of the past.” Just how far is it, I wondered, and I thought the tree might give some clues.

From counting the growth rings, I had learned that my tallest and thickest forest trees on this old farm site were not older than a century. But judging from its girth (seven feet circumference), the apple tree could be older. My chainsaw bit through its dead trunk, and after sanding and polishing a slice of the rich brown-red wood, which was riddled with the burrows of powder-post beetle larvae, I admired its almost microscopic growth rings, as many as twenty per quarter inch. I calculated that the tree must have been at least two hundred years old when it died about twenty years ago; it had now stood for about 220 years. It had started to grow around 1789, when George Washington took office. It was almost a decade old when John Adams, our second president and one of the recognized most influential founders of the United States, was finishing his term. It was a vigorous young tree when his son, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth president.

The decade when this tree made its start was also significant for this region in Maine. In his detailed history, Early Settlers of Weld, E.J. Foster wrote that this area was little known except to hunters until 1782 when a party led by Dummer and Henry Sewall set out to explore the country between the Kennebec and Connecticut rivers. They declared the land in this valley “to be good quality and worthy of cultivation,” and they discovered a pond about six miles long, which they named after the signature they found cut into a tree: “Thos. Webb.” Dummer’s Beach on Lake Webb today is the sandy beach that draws not only all the local residents, but people from afar, and the fifty-four-square-mile area by the pond that was surveyed and called “No. 5” became in 1816 the 214th town of the state of Maine — Weld, which now has a store, post office, and, as of 2010, a coffee bar with Internet access.

The first acknowledged settler of this area was Nathaniel Kittredge, who, Foster writes, came in the spring of 1799 to “fell trees, and burn and clear a few acres” and to erect a log house. The following year he brought his family, and that same year, the second settler, Caleb Holt, came and “planted the first orchard in town, and made the first cider in the fall of 1829.” These dates now had meaning, because they are part of the history of the apple tree.

Cutting the wood from the apple tree, polishing it to reveal its fine texture, and counting the growth rings revealed its historical context, but the ecological context of where it had grown up was clear from its form: The branching trunk of two huge laterally spreading limbs low to the ground was proof positive that the tree had originally grown on cleared land. But now comes the kicker: How could there have been cleared land up here on this steep hill over two centuries ago, decades before it was settled by farmers?

The European pioneers had built their cabins and grew their crops in the intervales along the Androscoggin River Valley, along tributary streams, and then the shores of lakes. They settled first on level and already cleared land. They came to where the soil was rich and deep, where they had access to drinking water and waterways for travel. They did not come to make homesteads on thickly forested hills such as this one, where the soil is thin and rocky, densely boulder-strewn, and required backbreaking labor of men and oxen to clear it before cattle could graze and crops could be planted. The settlers would not have picked places such as this, where there was no access to drinking water, no fish for fertilizer, and where deep wells had to be dug by hand and lined with rocks.

I had purchased most of the York Hill property from Virginia (Blanchard) York, who is three generations removed from Asa Adams, one of the farm’s original settlers on what was then called “Adams Hill,” and two removed from James Kendall York, who married Asa’s daughter, Flora, who was born on the farm in 1858. James and Flora lived on the farm, had nine children (seven surviving), and raised Ben Davis apples. Around 1930 the then-deserted house and two barns burned, and the fields started to be reclaimed by forest. Twenty-five years later Phil Potter, my Maine mentor, brought me here as a child to hunt grouse and deer in the abandoned overgrowing fields and apple orchards. I remembered seeing the apples, mashed up along with little brown seeds in bear scat in the woods.

Bears (and wolves and ravens) were probably so ubiquitous then that few people would have bothered to mention them, although Foster writes of one bear encounter in his historical account: In the autumn of 1808 Abel Fisk became lost in the bog at Alder Brook, a fifteen-minute walk downhill from the farm site, and he “lost” one of the two horses pulling his wagon. A few days later Benjamin Houghton, for whom Houghton Ledges, a ridge nearby, is named, “encountered a white-faced bear feeding on the flesh of the horse.” There are still bears here, and they still drop apple seeds that grow trees with spreading branches in what has now become my deliberately — and often laboriously — maintained clearing at the old farm site.

The remnants of the farm’s orchard grew on ground that had been cleared of rocks, and the trees were all at least a hundred years younger than the distinctively thick and squat apple tree that had grown adjacent to a large pile of rocks. Furthermore, only this tree grew precisely where four large stone walls converged, but a space was left on one side of the crossed walls where a team of oxen would have been able to pull their sledge through. Apparently then, the tree was there long before the orchard and the stone walls. The spot where the tree grew probably marked a central and perhaps well-traveled place in a clearing. Charcoal under the superficial layers of soil in many places on York Hill could be a hint of how the clearing was created.

The pioneers planted apple trees soon after they settled near Webb Lake. They would have gradually cleared land in an upward and outward direction. Undoubtedly they routinely used fire as well as axes to make their fields and farms. Fires burned forests, and bears were plentiful, and they raided apple trees then, as they do now. Then as now they would have spread apple seeds in their scat. As the seeds sprouted, the bears would have been inadvertent apple tree planters.

If the old tree originated from one of those bear-planted seeds on burnt land, then when the Adamses came up into the hills with their oxen around the 1830s, they could have found an already-mature apple tree. They would have been surprised and delighted. They would have seen the tree as a good omen and perhaps an inspiration to plant their orchard around it. The people making fields or orchards may have gravitated toward that tree in September with their many loads of rocks dragged on their sledge by their oxen.

Where they at first dumped their rocks during land-clearing may have been arbitrary, so perhaps they hauled them to where they could take a brief break and have a snack of fresh apple in the shade. Is that why the rock pile and the four rock walls converged on that spot? The hypothesis that the tree was there first seems reasonable and even likely, but proof seemed unlikely. It, therefore, seemed to me that the tree had said as much as it possibly could, and so I thought no more about it. But by a strange coincidence, it reemerged.

At the annual York Family Reunion in Wilton, Dr. Albert Sawyer, the then ninety-year-old grandson of James Kendall York and Flora Ella showed me some dreamy, grainy photographs of York Hill that had been taken by his mother, Helen York, nearly a hundred years earlier.

Helen, one of the seven surviving kids of James Kendall and Flora Ella, was born on York Hill, and she briefly (1916-1917) taught in the one-room school-house at the foot of the hill where a small community of workers had accumulated after a sawmill had been set up to make lumber of the tall pines that were at that time harvested upstream along Alder Brook.

Helen had owned one of the first Kodak box cameras, and one of her pictures, labeled “Kendall York Home in the Plantation with Mount Blue in the Background,” shows three persons herding at least twenty cattle and a white horse on a bald, overgrazed hill that I would never have recognized as York Hill were it not for the artifacts and stone foundations where I have dug, which pinpointed the building locations from the lay of the land and the mountains in the background.

Helen’s pictures, taken around 1911, of “Flora and Kendall at their Home in the Plantation” show her parents standing stiffly with the clearly-recognizable profile of the Gleason Mountain-Kinney’s Head Hill in the background. The couple is standing in front of the apple orchard that I had seen being claimed by the forest when I was a young boy and whose remnants are now moldering into the ground. My aging of the remnants of several of these now-dying trees at about ninety years old coincides, as expected, with when the picture was taken. But the third picture yielded an unexpected surprise. That picture of Helen herself, was labeled by Albert: “Helen York: Reading on a Rock Wall at her Home.”

As I examined the picture, a scene came to mind that reminded me of the stone wall foundations I was building, where the stones are like innumerable facts, but great care has to be taken that they fit together. I imagined a Fourth of July when the York clan, as they had every year, met for their traditional picnic on the Ledges, an overlook a few hundred yards above the house site that afforded a grand view down to Webb Lake and beyond to Tumbledown and Jackson mountains. Helen had dressed up in her Sunday best, and she and possibly her four sisters had bantered with her mother, Flora, as they cooked. The day before they had done the washing, which they hung on the long line that is visibly loaded in Helen’s photograph of the farm itself. After the cooking, the sun was coming up over the ridgeline of Gleason Mountain and shining on their two apple orchards, big pasture, and two hay fields. It was a beautiful morning and it was an occasion for celebrating. Helen admired the farm buildings — the house with attached shed and two barns right behind it — and saw her father, James Kendall York, and her two brothers nearby in front of the house with the cattle and also the white horse that pulled their carriage when they went down to the village of Weld by the lake. Mount Blue showed tall and clear to the north. Helen walked back to the house to get her camera and take a picture, and her mother suggested they have one of her as well. Helen was hesitant; she didn’t like the way nearly all people were photographed — staring straight into the camera. But she had a better idea. She, the schoolteacher, would sit in the shade of a tree on a stone wall and look at a book.

Helen must have handed her box camera to someone else to take the snapshot of her. She is pretending to be reading a book. She has carefully coiffured hair and is clad in a long white dress. She looks posed and eerily out of place sitting on the stone wall. There are miles of such rock walls everywhere, but it would turn out that she had happened to sit down on the only rock wall, and almost the only rock on it, that would or could have mattered for anyone now, a century later. The timing was right; had I seen this photograph earlier, I would have noticed little else besides her. But now, I also saw the tree behind her.

The tree behind Helen on the rocks is a large old apple tree. As my eye strayed over it, I noticed the shape of its thick trunk and the directions of two huge lateral limbs: It had grown up in the open. A thought flashed, and I dared to ask: Could it be “the” old apple tree? Sadly, there seemed to be no way to know — except the two large low limbs of the tree in the picture reminded me of the two stubs marking where I had three decades earlier trimmed off thick dead limbs of the now long-dead apple tree, to favor the thin tall stem then still reaching for the light. Could I really be seeing a picture of that specific tree when it was alive and large, a century earlier? Could she have sat by that specific spot? It seemed beyond belief and how could I ever know? But as I now also looked at the rocks she sat on, I noticed an angled arrangement of two flattened stones on top of each other, with a small but very distinctive cleft between them. Thinking rocks in a stone wall might not move much in a century, I went to the rock wall itself and tried to imagine where the photographer had probably stood to take the picture of Helen. I set my chainsaw as a stand-in for her onto the wall in front of the old tree remnants where I thought she may have sat, positioned myself so I was facing where the old homestead had stood, and snapped a picture. Later, when I set the two photographs side-by-side I was stunned — the same distinctly shaped and angled arrangement of rocks below Helen’s right hand was repeated in my photograph. Then other rocks around them fell into the same matching pattern except that the topmost layer of rocks of the stone wall were now missing.

I now had proof that the picture of Helen York that I had stumbled on shows a photograph of precisely that now-dead old apple tree I had always wondered about. The past two centuries suddenly clicked up against the present with a resounding whomp, and I realized that home is history — past, present, and in the making.