by Aaron Peterson
To call it an orchard is a romantic exaggeration. Really, it’s just a scatterblast of thirty applish-looking specimens poking up around our recently un-abandoned farmstead. A few look as though they may have been planted, while others are likely barnyard bastards sprung from wherever steaming cow pies coaxed them alive. But I’m not one to get hung up on pedigree. And besides, I prefer romantic exaggeration.
Most of the trees are of indeterminable varieties, though I think there are Yellow Transparents along the windbreak. Their pale-yellow orbs dapple the dark spruce rows. Several trees appear to be Duchess, with spicy flesh wrapped in red-and-yellow-striped skins. One gnarly old coot coughs up only a few apples, but each is the size of a small pumpkin, and the tired limbs ache with their ridiculous burden.
I love these crusty, semi-wild trees. They are blood brothers with the part of me that pivots between planting things in measured rows, or belly crawling through the swamp with an arrow in my teeth. Together we stagger along the rusted edge between civility and wilderness that the farm has become after decades of neglect. On one limb, we could be so domestic and productive; but on the other, we could just be.
As romantic as wildness is, it’s also a pain in the neck. Whitetails do not come when called. Skunks don’t shoo; they spray. Likewise, our overgrown trees produce when they feel like it, some years snapping their limbs with swaying fruit, and in others only laughing at our empty applesauce jars. The trees must be pruned back to civility, their feral limbs yoked and made productive for the good of the farm.
The forester from the county conservation district office had a voice like whiskey on gravel, a beard down to his chest and a Ph.D. He came out to advise on managing our small woodlot, but everybody knew he was a bootleg cider squeezer in his spare time, so our conversation naturally turned to the orchard.
“You’re not going to kill them,” he offered. “You could just cut them off completely a few feet up, and they’d grow back eventually.”
He explained how apple trees get lazy when the ratio of roots to branches reaches equilibrium. Like when savings accounts exceed the bills, we’re lulled into calling the fight a draw and just sipping cool water in our respective corners. The apples need to be pruned back into production, just like we need to fight our way out of debt to really appreciate income.
I recall his words now, standing knee-deep in crusty April snow with the chainsaw throbbing at my side. I try to trace the puzzle of limbs, untangling them, imagining them shorter, weighted with fruit and shaded with leaves. It seems impossible.
The saw burps a surly gasp when I kill the switch. It’s disgusted with my frailty and indecision. The saw knows its purpose, has a clear-cut duty and a mechanical, unquestioning instinct to chew bark, cambium, and wood. It senses my weakness, smells my fear through the clinging oil and gas exhaust, but who am I to bend an old tree to my will?
I am the “owner,” that’s who. These trees are here because of humans, and they will return to serving us. It’s not like I’m throwing a saddle on Bambi or trying to milk a raccoon. The trees are here to put sauce in the pantry, fruit in the cellar, and a cider-buzz-smile on our faces. They will submit.
With a tug, the saw roars back to life, and I start in. The first cuts are big. Entire limbs fall away. I’m cutting it like a Republican on a public school budget.
Then an old branch, studded with twisted spurs retaliates, catches me in the temple and splashes an angry red streak down to my ear. I put the chainsaw away and start in with the loppers. Enough with the artillery; this is close quarters, hand-to-limb combat. The snow-covered ground is darkening with spent limbs and sawdust as the sky goes pink with winter’s four o’clock dusk.
I finally call off the attack an hour after it’s too dark to be swinging sharp implements. Five trees, the cluster nearest the milkhouse, have felt my will. I’m breathing hard, but cold with sweat through wool and sawdust. Apple wood is everywhere.
I have no idea what I just did, or what the consequences will be. The branches all looked the same. I try to remember that rejuvenating a tree is a three-year process. I try to remember that thinning cuts open up the tree while heading cuts stimulate growth, but the neat illustrations in books never match the messy reality in the fields.
One thing I know is that these trees, once anchored in my soil, but reaching wild, tangled talons to the free sky, are now mine. Whether they’ll fruit again is anyone’s guess, but in all their newfound, Dr. Seuss silliness, they are mine.
This spring I will plant new trees alongside the worn and wizened ones. I will learn their names, and trust that in a few years they will make tame, dependable fruit. They will be an orchard, ultimately, but will there be any romance?
Aaron Peterson is a writer, photographer and filmmaker offering editorial and commercial assignment photography, stock photography and fine art prints from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the Lake Superior regions of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario. For more of his work visit www.aaronpeterson.net.