Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Apple Path

When our children were small, my husband began mowing paths through our field, grassy lanes that allowed little legs to maneuver more easily through the landscape of home. We still mow the paths – one up around the front field, another down to Big Rock, and “Auntie EB’s Path” toward my sister-in-law’s house. The one that gets the most use, though, is the Apple Path.

This one wends between what were, perhaps, once neat rows of apple trees. Long untended, the trees now are in various stages of wildness. Some have fallen over in recent years, their old trunks twisted and gnarled. Others, left unpruned for too long, have grown unruly, like wild-haired beasts, with shoots flying upward from branches at all angles and varying heights.

Some years ago, as winter merged to spring, I made an attempt to prune a few of the trees, cutting off new shoots and sawing away tired old branches. I vowed to get to each tree – nearly three dozen in total through the front field and the back one – over the course of a year or two. But it was hard work after so many years of neglect; I was indecisive in which limbs to prune and which to keep. And so the orchard remains mostly wild.

While some of the trees are gangly and awkward, others are tall and full – vastly larger than the neatly, purposefully trimmed trees of commercial orchards. Those trees are tended to optimize fruit production. Ours are simply a familiar part of the topography now, changing just as the other wild trees – the maples and pines and birches – growing, breaking, altering their shape through the course of weather and nature.

The woman we bought the house from told us these were Prohibition trees, planted to grow fruit for making hard cider. The house was built in 1929 – near the tail end of Prohibition – and I wonder if the trees were here before the house, tended by some thirsty farmer down the road.

Whenever it was planted, and despite our neglect of the trees, we have watched many seasons shift through the old orchard.

In mid-spring, the trees transition from bare, twisted limbs to a glorious display of pastel blooms. At first, the small, tightly-whorled buds of palest pink appear, then a few blossoms unfold here and there, until suddenly the field explodes into a sweet-smelling froth of white and pink flowers. The bees buzz through the apple trees then, happily seeking the nectar there.

By the time the flowers have gone, the landscape around the apple trees has greened toward summer, and our attention shifts to other things. But come fall, the apple trees stand out again – no so much for their foliage, which, frankly, is rather blah, but for the abundance they hold.

Some of the trees have red fruit, others yellow. The apples don’t grow large, and they tend to be spotted, but they are ample in number. Some years – mostly when the kids were little and unencumbered by homework and soccer practice – we have gathered enough to make cider (not the hard kind) and apple sauce.

Mostly, though, our apple trees feed the wildlife. We have seen – either in live time or through images captured by the game camera – an array of animals traveling the Apple Path: turkeys, bears, deer, foxes, porcupines, coyotes, squirrels, crows. This year, there is a distinct, well-trodden trail pressed into the grass along the length of the Apple Path, leading from the densest cluster of apple trees down to the forest beyond our field.

The game cam is on the fritz, so I can’t know for sure who has made the trail. But I suspect the regular travelers include the mother bear and three cubs we saw often through the summer, the cubs growing from tiny, black fuzz balls to what I imagine is teenage-hood for bears – which likely means those cubs are constantly hungry now.

Several years ago, when my own cubs were still tiny, we had a mother bear with four cubs in the neighborhood. When we inadvertently startled them one evening, she sent all four up a lanky apple tree just behind the vegetable garden. While they peered out from the branches, she remained calmly on the ground below, noshing on windfall apples.

Now, in the thick of autumn, many of this year's apples have fallen to the ground. Past experience tells me the deer will continue to eat the apples as far into the winter as they can, ambling along the Apple Path and scratching through the snow to reach the fruit that remains long after it ripened and fell.

When the snow becomes deep, the deer keep to their sheltered, hidden places. The bears, too, will have hunkered down by then, hopefully well fed on fall’s bounty. Winter’s starkness will again reveal the bones of the trees and lead me once more to thoughts of pruning – someday.
Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the October 11, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

September Hodgepodge

September marks one of those in-between seasons: no longer full summer, but just reaching into fall. The kids have returned to the classroom, but they are still settling into the new school year routine. The days might feel steamy-hot, but they can also be wear-a-coat chilly. The flowers are mostly gone, but the leaves are popping with new color. This time of year is sort of a mashup of different things – a little of this, a little of that.

Between seasons (a few years ago).
The other day I went out to the garden and picked a handful of Brussels sprouts. Given the cabbage-worm-eaten look of the giant leaves, I’m guessing these might be the only Brussels sprouts I get this year, at least from my own garden. There are a few carrots left to pull from the ground, but the bulk of summer’s bounty has been plucked and consumed.

Last week’s frost did leave a few veggies unscathed – or at least didn’t damage them past the point of recovery. The leaves of my last two rows of green beans browned in the cold of those two consecutive frosty nights, but the beans themselves survived to be eaten. And while the older leaves of the sprawling zucchini plants have wilted with time and chilly temps, there is still new growth – bright green against the shifting colors of fall – and a few more squash to be picked.

The berries are gone, and the apples are abundant. The perennial bed has yellowed and waits to be cut down for the winter, and the fields are mostly straw-colored now as growing things fade away – except for the tall purple asters, whose vivid color seems bright even against the glow of changing red and orange and yellow showing from the trees.

The kids still head outside to play after school, but they’re coming to terms with the reality that there is not much light – or warmth – lingering after dinnertime. And there is homework to do now, and earlier bedtimes to match the earlier mornings. Weekends, too, are a mix – of persisting summer chores and preparing-for-cold-weather tasks, of regrouping from the busy weeks and keeping up with the weekend events, of slowing down and hurrying up.

My own work right now is also a bit of a jumble of wrapping up loose ends and chasing new leads, as I work to cross that bridge between the writings of one season and the stories of the next.

Between work and chores, soccer practices and dinner prep, family time and outside obligations, I remember to take in the shifting colors of this early fall – in the yard beyond the garden, on the hillside behind the high school soccer field, along the rivers and roads, as I make my way between seasons.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the September 27, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Barefoot Blues

One recent morning, I headed out to the dwindling garden to pick a few carrots for the kids’ lunchboxes and gasped when my bare feet hit the grass. Yes, fall color has been creeping steadily into the landscape and the sun is slower to rise these days – and slower to warm the air – but I was not prepared for the sharp cold of dewy grass on bare toes.

Bye-bye, bare toes.
I love the changing colors of fall, that slow fade to gold and ochre that precedes the brightening of hillsides to brilliant orange and blazing red. I welcome the crispness of the morning air and the season’s apples. I don’t begrudge having to don a cozy sweater during the chillier evenings.

But I am loath to give up bare feet and flipflops.

Leaving the shoes behind is one of the first joys of spring, when the days are finally warm enough to eschew socks and sneakers for sandals and bare toes – no more hauling out the boots to pull over thick socks before making even the quickest of trips outside.

Gradually, as the days lengthen, barefoot becomes the norm around our house – and beyond. There is barefoot gardening, along with barefoot soccer in the yard, barefoot walks along the river, and barefoot balancing on the slackline. Most trips beyond the house – other than hiking and biking outings – require only a quick slide into flipflops. Our formerly winter-white feet become tough and tan. Our toes revel in the feel of rough sand and smooth grass. Barefootedness is one of the best parts of summer.

I know, of course, that summer is nearly over now. Although the calendar gives us about another week of this season before it is officially fall, summer always feels as though it’s ended when the kids go back to school. They’ve just finished week three of the new school year, so I’ve mostly waved goodbye to the warmest season.

I’ve come to terms with the school backpacks hanging in their regular spots and with afternoon homework help. I’ve started to get used to the morning rush of breakfast and packing lunches and getting everyone out the door before they’ve fully roused from the previous night’s sleep. I’ve even found some happiness in pulling on jeans for the first time in months and cozying into flannel and fleece.

But giving up the bare feet and flipflops feels like letting go of the last little bit of summer’s freedom, and that is a hard thing to do. I guess you could say have cold feet – in more ways than one – about the next season, lovely though it may be.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the September 13, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.