Memoirs of a Vermont apple orchard
The violent summer storm had done some terrible damage to the apple orchard the night before. One didn’t have to be a horticultural expert to know that an apple tree lying on its side, or split in half, was a bad thing for a fruit tree. Walking through the wet, knee high grass of the orchard the morning following the storm I surveyed the scene and wondered how much work would be required to clean things up. Okay, let me clarify; walking might be a statement of exaggeration as it could imply that there was purpose, and drive to my forward motion – while in reality I had neither; it was actually more of an amble, a slow lurching body language that screamed I was in no particular hurry to begin the task that I had been sluggishly laboring at for weeks – pulling brush.
I know that pulling brush sounds like the type of work that, perhaps, a clipboard carrying scientist in a white lab coat might perform in a dark, air conditioned clean room deep within the bowels of the laboratory, but in reality it was manual labor. Grunt work. You see, the previous winter all of the apple trees had been prune since that time and all of those pruned branches were lying twisted and tangled on the ground under the trees like concertina wire around a defensive perimeter of a war zone.
Pulling brush would begin in late spring around the middle of April when the white snow was almost completely melted, and all that remained of winter’s wonderland were here and there patches of dirty brown-white snow that, from a distance looked like pieces of rumpled newspaper. The seemingly endless task would continue through the dog-day heat of summer as all of those prunings had to be pulled out from underneath the apple tree and piled into the middle of the row. This implement of choice to accomplish this undertaking was a pitch fork.
To me, the pitch fork seemed to add a not-so-subtle devilish representation to an already dark chore. As a child I had heard in Sunday School that it was an apple tree in the Garden of Eden that had been the cause of Adam’s fall from grace, and part of the resulting curse meant he, and all who followed behind him, had to pull brush from under apple trees until mankind and creation were finally redeemed. Theologians called it the Doctrine of Original Sin – and I was experiencing the fall out (no theological pun intended) of Adam’s Original Sin. Or, that was my personal interpretation of the Genesis story.
Yes, six thousand years later, that is what it had come to; reach the pitch fork under the tree. Grab a branch or branches with said pitch fork. Flick the wrists and arms so that the satanic pitch fork would send the severed branches and twigs flying out from under the tree into the middle of the row. I could have competed in the Olympics had they had brush pulling as a competitive category. I imagined myself on the highest podium during the medal ceremony, the National Anthem playing as I blinked back a tear, the crowd chanting U –S- A! U-S-A! while I held aloft – my pitchfork. Yeah, okay so the Olympic daydream would disappear and there I was…pulling brush…One branch at a time. One tree at a time. One row at a time. One section of the orchard at a time. Mindless. Boring. Sweaty. Non-scientific. Grunt work. What’s below grunt work? Pulling brush is below grunt work, or it certainly seemed that way at the time.
I needed something to live for; a reason to keep coming back to this apple tree purgatory day after day. Until that morning, I lived for…the fire. The fire was the goal. You see, after all the branches were pulled into the middle of the rows of trees we would then them into large piles and burn them like some funeral pyre. I liked burning them. I lived for burning them. I was a moth, so to speak, to the apple tree’s brush pile flame.
But, getting to the fire pile would take some time. Weeks and months of time. Sometimes those wretched rows of apple trees looked so long that I swore I could see the curvature of the earth. The rows were oriented north and south. I began to think like a prisoner plotting a cell block breakout:
“If I keep pulling brush, and kept heading south I’ll find myself in Massachusetts in a few days. Then, I can hop a whaling ship from Marblehead and put out to sea where there are no apple trees. They’ll never find me…I’m invisible. I’ll live off the land and eat sour apples and spear things with my pitchfork…yeah, that’s what I’ll do. “
Yeah, right. With my luck, I’d miss Marblehead and would just stumble into another orchard and pull brush until I reached the equator. Okay, maybe not, but I had to play games in my head to maintain my sanity.
And so it went on this unseasonably warm August morning in 1974, as I trudged towards the remote region of the orchard where I had halted my brush pulling the previous day. The beads of sweat forming all over me indicated that it was fast becoming time for a uniform change so, off came my shirt. Almost immediately, attracted by the sweat, the determined deer flies began to attack like dive bombers out of the sun. Deer flies are horrible creatures. They flit around your head so close that you can hear them and feel them. They almost land on you, but not quite. You flick them off, fight them off, swat them off – and still them come. If they land on you, they bite. Insult to injury. It’s enough to make a guy not want to pull brush for a living – or even for a summer job in high school.
It was times like this that I was genuinely jealous of cows. They had tails. They languidly lashed those tails, swishing back and forth to keep biting flies at bay. I didn’t have a tail. I had to make do with my shirt. So, through the orchard I trudged armed with the tools of my trade ; in one hand, a red and white plastic water jug with the handle slung over my satanic three pronged pitch fork, in the other hand my white cotton shirt making lazy circles over my head as I sang a chorus of “Shoo fly…don’t bother me…”.
Such was my frame of mind that morning after the storm as l I stepped into what I began to call “my portal”. To say that what happened next was unexpected would be an understatement. One moment, I’m flicking at flies and pondering my next attempt at an Olympic medal in brush pulling, and the next I felt like I was transported back in time two hundred years.
What occurred was this; as I walked south between the rows of apple trees I was on something of a hill that rose gently up to my left and dropped off somewhat more sharply on my right. The bite of a deer fly on my right shoulder snapped me out of my reverie. My left hand left hand dropped the water bottle and pitch fork as I reflexively swatted at the irritation and simultaneously spun on my heels to my right. When I wheeled to the right, exactly on that spot, exactly to my right, another tree had been toppled during the night storm.
In it’s place was a magnificent view that I had never seen prior to this moment and one that I have never forgotten. Usually, all I could see in the orchard was trees. But now, on this one spot, with this one tree missing and with the view being to the west where the hill dropped in that direction, and the eastern morning sun put a spotlight to the west, all of these factors came together to enable me to see over the tops of the other trees.
Perhaps three short miles away from the hilltop upon which I stood transfixed, and perfectly framed between the remaining trees - was an old fort. From my vantage point I could make out the dull glint of sunlight dancing across the black cannon that menaced its walls like porcupine quills, while heat arose like a mirage and waved and glimmered dully off the ancient red tile roof. The great grey stone walls seemed to rise right out of the lake upon whose shoreline they were built and then disappear into the Adirondack mountains at whose base they clung. I was stunned. Only the morning sun shining from a perfect angle from the east let the fort be so exposed. It was only observable for a few hours. Later in the day it would disappear as the mountains threw shadows over the scene like a dark blanket.
I half expected to see some revolutionary war soldier step onto those walls. This was Fort Ticonderoga of French and Indian Wars and Revolutionary War fame. This is the fort where in a daring raid Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had demanded its surrender in the name of the “great Jehovah and the continental congress”. Every boy in my town knew all the stories about the epic struggles around this fortress from centuries gone by.
I’m not sure why I was so mesmerized with this verdant scene. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of its appearing there so perfectly framed. Perhaps it was my delight of having something else to thing about other than brush pulling Olympics. I don’t know. I just know that I stood and stared at a small spot where a day before an apple tree had stood and on that day, my portal was opened. I had a view that must have been similar to what a weary traveler might have seen passing by this very spot more than two centuries prior. I saw that wind, rain and chance had put this portal on display and that I was the only one who might ever know that it was here. Captivated. That’s what I was. I wished I could step through this portal and come out the other side a dashing soldier of the Revolution. I stared. I listened. Maybe I might hear the scream of a cannon ball headed my way, or the war cry of terrifying Iroquois warriors who had been disturbed by my intrusion into their century.
Nope. I heard nothing. Only the crescendo of summer’s cicadas and the omni-present hum of honey bees. So, I plodded on to pull brush.
As I was the only one to be in the Orchard at that time of day throughout the summer I was the only one who had seen the portal. Each morning I would stop at the portal and ponder previous times gone by. One day, just before autumn’s apple harvest, a new tree was planted in the space vacated by the previous tree. In the morning hours, when the sun shone from the east I could still see around the small tree enough to see my portal.
The portal remained viewable all of the next summer. Five days after high school I left my small town in Vermont and never returned to the portal until a few weeks ago. I walked, well, I strolled down between the rows of apple trees in an orchard that was now dying. The trees that I had labored in during my childhood years were overgrown, unkempt, and gnarled like a group of old men. They no longer produced a sweet fruit. My portal? Well, I found the spot, but there was nothing to see. Tall trees had reclaimed the view. The fort was out there hiding in the distance somewhere. The portal was gone, awaiting another steamy summer storm to reopen its secret. I was disappointed. I’m not sure if I wanted to see my portal or if I wanted to step into a portal and revisit the summer of 1974, with cicadas buzzing and warm breezes blowing, and deer flies harassing. For a moment…I actually wanted to pull brush.