A Spring Thaw Under the Apple Tree

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EVERY April, I am beset by the same frightened concern - that spring might not occur this year.

Even at the beginning of May, the landscape looks forsaken, with hills, sky, and forest forming a single gray meld, like the wash an artist paints on a canvas in preparation for a masterwork. When I first came to Maine 13 years ago, I had to turn for solace to a friend who had worked in the north woods most of his 70 years. ``Just wait,'' he counseled during an April snowfall, when my spirits had once again ebbed. ``You'll wake up one morning and it will just be here.''

And lo, on May 3 of that year I awoke to a green so startling as to be almost electric, as if spring in Maine were simply a matter of flipping a switch. Leaves had unfurled, legions of goldfinches had arrived at the feeder, and daffodils were fighting their way heavenward. I leaped outdoors with an attitude of ``What took you so long?'' And I watched as the last of the snow, which only the day before had kept the lid on this euphoria, beat a hasty retreat to sheltered branches and rock crevices, diminishing in importance.

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It was almost too much to bear, this assault of color, this world of spring in suddenly rapid motion. I watched as those aforementioned hills, sky, and forest revealed their appealing purples, blues, and greens. And after my eyes had feasted, the lilacs and honeysuckles competed for attention, exuding a dizzying fragrance.

In my neighborhood, there is an old apple tree on an undeveloped lot. It belongs to no one and therefore to everyone. Rising unkempt between railroad tracks and asphalt, its dark, twisted branches sprawl heavenward and earthward in a mire of unpruned abandon. In winter, this tree looks dead as a doornail. And yet each spring, it blossoms so profusely that the air becomes saturated with the aroma of apple. When I drive through it, I make sure my windows are rolled down. It gives me the feeling of moving in another element, like a kid on a water slide.

Until last year, I thought I was the only one who was even aware of this tree. And then, one day, in a fit of spring madness, I set out with pruner and lopper in hand and headed straight for it. I felt that by removing some dead wood and a few errant branches, I would perhaps prevent its being injured by the weight of its own growth. No sooner had I arrived under its boughs than windows began to go up and neighbors leaned out on sills and stepped onto their porches. Like a person who changes seats on a bus in transit, I had elicited some sort of suspicion. These were people I barely knew and seldom spoke to, but it was as if I had stepped unbidden into their personal gardens.

My mobile-home neighbor was the first to speak. ``You're not going to cut it down, are you?'' she asked anxiously. Another neighbor, whose name I knew but little else, called to me. He, too, wanted to question my intentions and winced as I lopped off a wrong-headed branch. ``Don't kill it, now,'' he cautioned.

In time, half the neighborhood had joined me under the apple arbor. It struck me that I had lived in this neighborhood for five years and only now was learning these people's names, what they did for a living, and how they passed the winter. It was as if the old apple tree were gathering us under its boughs for the sole purpose of acquaintanceship. I recalled Frost's words about the power of trees:

The trees that have it in

their pent-up buds

To darken nature and be

summer woods....

And, he might have added, ``to draw those together who might otherwise never have spoken.''

So one thaw had lead to another. Just the other day, I met one of my neighbors at the local store. He remarked how this recent winter had been especially long and hard. He lamented not having seen or spoken to anyone in our neighborhood at length. And then, recouping his thoughts, he looked at me and said, ``We need to prune that apple tree again.''

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