On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy's hands. One nibbles at them and they are delicious. One runs from tree to tree . . . picking the gnarled, twisted apples and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples.
― Sherwood Anderson
Applepicking is over. It’s early this year because two of our most plentiful varieties were hit by weather issues. We’ll pick and press those that remain for cider, cook and freeze applesauce, and store the Blushing Golden apples (they are good keepers), but otherwise it will be time to put the orchard to bed. We have nutrients to spread, mowing to do under the trees, and vole protection to install — actually quite a lot of work to do. It’s been a long year of preparation for such a short, and not very profitable, season.
The trees look sad with their limbs bare and their leaves fading and falling. It’s been a fall with summer temperatures, and the trees prefer it cooler. I can imagine the trees speaking among themselves these lines from Robert Frost’s poem, “After Apple-Picking,”
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
The trees do their best. They fight the wars with pests, they take up nourishment and water as they can, and they stand amidst the winds and hail. Their world is changing more quickly than they can adapt to. I visited a friend a few weeks ago, and the line of maples around her house were all brown. “Maple die back,” he said. I nodded. Whatever that means. For we don’t really know what is happening.
Mike Biltonen is a New York State orchard consultant who writes a newsletter at Knowyourroots.com about the pressing seasonal issues in his orchard world. In July he wrote:
But most importantly, the effects of climate change and apple tree decline are not avoiding any one. I am seeing orchards with many different problems and manifestations of sudden apple decline (SAD). Orchard management for climate resilience is the defining issue today.
One commonality – regardless of how you grow your trees and fruit – is that no farmers are going to escape the impacts of climate change. For some the consequences may be dire resulting in complete orchard collapse.
When I first read this in the newsletter, I put my head in the sand. It sounded so ominous. But reading his newsletter again, and with the season for applepicking over, I am looking at the reality in our orchard. The new trees, the trees I have planted from 2006 onward, produced a beautiful crop. The fruit was unblemished and tasty and their production was bountiful. The trees that succumbed to weather issues were the three varieties that were already in the orchard, Macintosh, Blushing Golden, and Golden Delicious, trees that are now over 35 to 40 years old. Is it that these trees are feeling the weight of their years? They are not standard size trees—these can live 100 years—but semi-dwarf, which have a considerably shorter life expectancy for optimum production. Maybe they are reaching that time in their lives, and I am expecting too much?
With climate change, an aging orchard, and, oh, yes, my own aging — I am conflicted about the prospect of continuing to make the orchard a viable place for pick-your-own organic fruit. Fall 2016 we had no fruit because of the spring freeze, and now this year we had only about 50 percent apple production. I want to jump ship, but as the captain I will stay on board. There is something about the orchard that demands this fidelity. We’re discussing a rejuvenation plan. We’ll take down some of the oldest trees and the two rows of Macintosh apples, the scab magnets, and plant more scab-resistant varieties.
The orchard has given me so much. Its branches have spread over the pages of my writing and its roots grown into my art.
But, now, I can understand how the prior owners left the orchard on its own for years before they moved away. It can be just too much effort. I have learned so much from working intimately with the trees. We have had some great years of bumper crops, the orchard a ravishing vision of color and scent that delighted countless apple pickers. But fall is in the air. Both the trees and I need a rest. I turn to Mary Oliver’s words for repose.
Another year gone, leaving everywhere
its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,
the uneaten fruits crumbling damply
in the shadows, unmattering back
from the particular island
of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere
except underfoot, moldering
in that black subterranean castle
of unobservable mysteries - roots and sealed seeds
and the wanderings of water. This
I try to remember when time's measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn
flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
to stay - how everything lives, shifting
from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures.