Cutting Down An Old Apple Tree: Looking Back Into History, And Maybe Looking Forward.

With regret I revved the chainsaw and began removing branches from the old apple tree. A minor heartache always accompanies the elimination of tree, especially one that carries the story of long-gone farmers in its body. I am sad to see the wizened old apple tree reduced to firewood and wood chips for the garden paths.

Somewhere about 1910 our side yard was planted in an orchard. Judging by stumps and the remaining trees, the orchard contained either 12 or 24 apple trees. All the remaining trees have rotted cores, implausibly remaining standing year after year. They each attempt to set fruit, but in their exhausted condition they never manage to bring the apples to maturity. The orchard is worn out. But I delay cutting these trees down; they have earned their senescence.

This particular apple tree lost a main limb during a wind storm in August. It was beyond hope, cracked through the core and collapsing everywhere. It was time to go.

What set this tree apart from the others was the grafting work of some forgotten farm hand. Members of the family that used to own this farm told me stories that had been passed on to them that about this tree. They were able to tell me that the farm laborer had been known as a green thumb, but his name and story are lost. Everyone admired the three varieties of apples that were grafted as separate leaders on the tree. Even after all these years the irregular scars remained visible from that man’s knife cutting in those grafts.

With this apple tree gone, we make room for new food bearing plants. I cleared the brush and vines, graded out the dirt, and started planning for the next cycle in creating an edible landscape. This area will get a row of hazelnuts near the road, with a row of blueberries next to it.

I wish I could know more of the history of all the people and work on this place, of all the choices and decisions of people who stood in this spot. Our knowledge of its history only becomes detailed around 1900, with a few scattered records from 1850. But people have been farming and hunting in this spot for many hundreds or thousands of years in one way or other. I wish for a time machine to create a meeting of all the people over all the generations who have lived and worked and intimately known this small area of land with its exposed glacial drumlin ridgeline and its narrow slotted valley. I would be fascinated to hear how they lived and how this place provided for them.

In my place, I can only know a little. A little of the people who have come before. A little of what I’m doing now. Perhaps I’ll pass on a hint to the person who comes next. The trees I cut down and the trees I plant leave witness marks of the work our family did here at this time.

This is a good place. It can provide for the needs of its inhabitants if we can match our conception of abundance to the plants and animals that thrive here, and if we can contour our lives to the patterns this land demands demands of us. I sincerely hope the work I do now can contribute to the life of the next person to stand in this spot, and the person after that.

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