Spring, and Already Apples

The first day of spring notwithstanding, it continued to snow up here in central Maine. The weather forecasters on radio and TV mentioned the fact of spring, but with a hint of apology in their voices, conveying a sense that they had failed to deliver the correct season on the appointed date.

But the official first day of the new season grants me the right - which did not exist as recently as Groundhog Day - to think in terms of spring. I can begin to move as if I will soon be doing great things outdoors, under a brilliant sky, caressed by warmer and more affirming winds, my fingers sunk in the steadily warming earth.

First and foremost, I think of apples. They mean a great deal up here in the north country, because they are one of the few fruit trees that will actually make a respectable go of it in Maine. Plums are said to offer some stiff competition, but I would never buy a diminutive, rather desiccated Maine plum if given a choice between it and a succulent import. Pears can face the winter here, but the fruit is scrawny, as if all of the tree's reserves have been spent on sheer survival during the coldest months. Some years back, a new variety of peach was developed in New Hampshire - the "Reliance" - which was said to be able to withstand temperatures of 20 below. I bought one, planted it, watched it blossom the very first spring, and then commemorated its passing a year later, after a winter that had seen a temperature of 21 below.

Apple trees are special because they have, like the poodle, become dependent on human ministrations. An untended apple tree cries for attention by going every which way in the joints and throwing its branches around itself, as if to garner the embrace it lacks from human caretakers. But when they are properly pruned, fertilized, and defended from insect pests and fungus, apple trees become sculptures of profound beauty. Each variety has its own personality. The Cortland in my backyard - with its dark, shiny bark and symmetrical form - has caught the eye of more than one passerby, including a driver who stopped and called me over to his car. "Is that a Cortland?" he asked. When I nodded assent, his eyes sparkled. "That is one beautiful tree," he said, lingering a moment before driving on.

The allure of apple trees lies not only in their heartiness and growing form, but in the sheer number of varieties and their appealing nomenclature. Before the fruit became homogenized on supermarket shelves in the form of the Red Delicious ("Cardboard!" scoffs my septuagenarian neighbor, Earl), there was a stunning variety of apples available to Americans. Just look at these names: Cox's Orange Pippin, Wolf River, Esopus Spitzenburg, Northern Spy, Oxford, Wealthy, Westfield Seek-No-Further.... Each has its own coloration, taste, texture, and keeping qualities. Although they have disappeared from store shelves, they can still be found at roadside stands and farmers' markets, offered by people dedicated to the apples' persistence.

In my own town there is a man who raises these so-called "antique" varieties as an avocation. He is a biochemist, and I have seen him at professional meetings, discussing this or that chemical reaction, when suddenly someone asks him about his orchard. Like a ship drawn into a whirlpool, he yields to the inevitable.

"Now you've done it," he says, "you've got me going on those apples." From that moment on, the talk never returns to molecules. He cannot help it. He is in love.

Here in Maine we have a family that raises fruit trees specifically for our northern climate. Every spring they hold a sale, and folks come from all over the state and beyond to admire the offerings and handle the merchandise.

ABOUT 10 years ago, I went to the Fulford family to buy my first apple tree. When I got there, on the second day of the sale, it seemed that all of the trees were gone. I asked the youngest Fulford, Mark, a milk-faced 20-year-old, if there was any hope. He thought for a moment and then escorted me to a mere whip with two thin side branches stretched out like waiting arms. "A Cortland," he said in the abbreviated Fulford manner. "Very hearty. Five dollars."

I agreed to purchase the tree, but when I moved to take it, Mark seemed reluctant to let go. "These trees," he said wistfully, running his hand up and down the smooth, russet-colored bark and going over it with his eyes. "You know, I just got married, but on my honeymoon all I could think about was these apple trees."

I hesitated for a moment, as if giving Mark time to accept that I was worthy of the purchase and would take good care of his Cortland. I understood his concern, having read Robert Frost's words:

This saying good-by on the edge of the dark

And the cold to an orchard so young in the bark

Reminds me of all that can happen to harm

An orchard away at the end of the farm

Mark finally released the prize, and today it grows in a sunny spot in my backyard, overlooking the Penobscot River. It is still a young thing, but in the spring it blossoms mightily; in the summer its branches droop with their loads of purple-red fruit; and in autumn it drums the earth with its windfalls.

But enough of spring, summer, and fall. It is late March, and this is Maine, and the Cortland stands snow-laden, which means that I have everything to look forward to.

Was Johnny Appleseed for Real?

Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill were tall tales of the American frontier. But there really was a Johnny Appleseed. Around 1800, nurseryman John Chapman collected apple seeds from cider mills in western Pennsylvania and headed West. He bought land and planted apple orchards from the Alleghenies to central Ohio and beyond. For nearly 50 years, he sold or gave away thousands of apple seeds and seedlings to settlers. He was gentle, generous, got along well with the Indians, and was devoted to the Bible. But did he wear a mush pot for a hat, walk barefoot, and use a coffee sack as a shirt? Myth and fact became tangled soon after his death in 1845.

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