Idyllic memories of a special place
The Apple Orchard
There was a small orchard on the Montana ranch where my father (and I) grew up. I realize now that the orchard was newly planted when Dad was young and they probably matured at about the same time. The ranch was purchased from Elmer Cunningham, the original homesteader, in 1933 by my grandparents, Albert and Anna Fisher. It’s an eight mile drive west from 'town' and then a mile south on a gravel road to the ranch. The road eventually reaches pavement again, but still, it’s the sort of place that you don't just happen upon. A person has to either be looking for it or seriously lost to get there.
There was about forty feet of grass between the road and my grandparent's old farmhouse. The back yard slopes gently away from the house another forty or fifty feet toward the orchard. Looking up, you can see the peaks of the Mission Mountains above the trees. The orchard was well planned to support a family with six apple trees, a sour cherry tree and a pear tree. There were apples that ripened early and apples that ripened late. We had both cherries and apples for fruit pie. Some of the apples were good for cider or sauce, and some were good for keeping through the winter. All of these fruit trees, along with gooseberry and currant bushes, were planted by my great-uncle, Roy Kennedy, in the 1930's. Roy was a veteran of WWI who never married, but he loved gardening and was close to his sister Anna. He traveled by bus to find the different plants and bring them back to the ranch. The apple orchard, and the memories it provided, were his legacy to my generation. I wish I could have known him.
The Yellow Transparent tree bore a soft, thin skinned apple that was sweet and made good applesauce, but it wasn’t as good for pies or canning. Its best feature was that it ripened early, allowing us to enjoy fresh apples by the end of July. I remember that we would always jump the season, eating them as soon as they were big enough to make three bites. Our cousins and the neighbor kids would join us in pretending that we liked the puckery too-soon taste and that we didn't mind the green-apple stomach aches that often followed. It wasn't a very big tree and we could reach most of those pale yellow-green apples just by climbing up a little way into the branches or by being lifted onto the shoulders of an adult.
The apples on the Duchess tree would come on later. It was a medium sized tree, not well suited for climbing and it was always a bit of a challenge to get the apples. I vaguely remember a rickety three-legged wooden ladder, but it must have broken apart before I was very old. I remember using a long stick to knock the ripe apples off and then trying to catch them, or throwing a rope over a branch and shaking the apples off. We usually wanted only a few at a time because the Duchess apples were the best variety for cooking. I was always willing to 'hunt' and peel the apples if it meant a pie for dessert.
My favorite treat, though, was apple bars. My mother made them in a sheet pan with corn flakes added to the crust and with a powdered sugar icing drizzled on top. They were like a frosted apple pie that you could eat with your fingers. I made sure that Mom taught my wife how to make them and I've continued to enjoy those apple bars my whole life. I once asked my Mom if it would be okay for my wife to share the 'secret' and submit it to some family cookbook project. "I don't mind" she said, "I got the recipe from a Corn Flakes box." So much for the old family recipe!
The Wealthy tree ripened in early fall. It was the sturdiest of the apple trees and we would sometimes sit on the branches, eating apples and just 'hanging out'. It had large fleshy apples that were good to eat, but were best suited for cider or for making applesauce. I have a vague memory of my parents talking about an old cider press that may have belonged to my grandparents. I don't remember it being used and I'm not sure what happened to it. It might have been too dirty or too damaged to save. We didn't make cider but we made a lot of applesauce. I remember many hours spent turning a hand cranked grinder that would force the apple pulp through a screen while ejecting the skin, core, and seeds into a scrap bucket. Mom would add sugar and cinnamon and cook the applesauce before putting it into canning jars. We stored the jars in the root cellar under the house and we had applesauce all winter long.
The Red Delicious apples weren't the biggest or the sweetest, but they kept the longest. We would pick them toward the end of the season and store them in boxes in the root cellar. The flesh would soften, getting a bit 'mushy' but they didn't actually rot for a surprisingly long time. Picking the Red Delicious was both a project and an adventure. The tree had mostly vertical branches that were too small to support a climber, so Dad would lift us up with the hayhead of our Farmall model H tractor. The Farmall was equipped with a hydraulic lift and the hayhead had long wooden teeth that were designed to slide along the ground and pick up loose hay. The teeth were six inches wide at the base, two inches thick and about eight feet long. They tapered to about three inches wide before coming to a sharpened point. Those teeth were plenty strong to hold up a kid, but they did tend to wobble a bit, especially as you got out toward the end.
Here's a picture of a toy tractor similar to our real one, along with a picture of my sister eating apples in front of the old farm house:
Us kids would climb onto the hayhead with our buckets and Dad would raise the hydraulic arms, adjust the tilt, and drive the tractor under the tree. We would crawl around on the teeth, moving through the branches to pick apples and put them into our buckets. Of course, it would have been a waste of gas to leave the tractor running, so Dad would shut the tractor off while we picked. That was where the adventure came in. With the tractor off, there was no pressure available to the hydraulic system and we had to trust the valves and seals to hold us steady. I remember once when the pressure bled off of the tilt cylinder and the entire hayhead suddenly dipped. Everyone went sliding and scrambling toward the apple tree, screaming as we went. Oh, the humanity! We fell just like the Hindenburg except that nobody actually got hurt - much. It did, however, take a lot of coaxing to get us back up onto the hayhead to finish picking the apples.
The McIntosh apples didn't ripen until September. The fruit wasn't large, but it was very crisp and sweet, perhaps the sweetest of all. My mother says that the McIntosh made very good pies. I certainly remember waiting and hoping that they would be fully ripe before the autumn frost ended our apple season. I've always thought that the McIntosh apples had the best flavor, but I've been disappointed by the ones in the grocery store. Maybe they're picked too soon, maybe they just don't travel well, or maybe it's just me. At any rate, like a lot of things, the ones I find today don't measure up to my memories.
The crabapple tree seemed like a waste when I was young. The apples were too small for good eating and they were kind of tart anyway. Their virtue was only seen (and tasted) when my grandmother would cook them down for the juice and make crabapple jelly. I remember picking them for her even after she had moved into town. She really liked the crabapple jelly and I have to agree that it was delicious. Mom also made it sometimes, but it was a lot of work to get a little bit of jelly. I realize now that the abundant crop of small apples, mostly left on the tree, were a good source of food for birds and other small animals. That may not have been planned but it worked out well.
The cherry tree was a self-pollinating variety that produced fairly well during my childhood. The tart cherries weren't very good to eat fresh, but Mom made a lot of good pies with the fruit. She also canned a lot of those cherries so that we could have pies during the winter.
The pear tree was a good idea that didn't quite work out. It usually had a large quantity of fruit, but the growing season was too short and the pears rarely got ripe enough to taste good. When they did ripen, though, the fruit was sweet and tasty.
I really liked that orchard and I still think about it from time to time. I guess it represents a simpler, more peaceful time that I wish I could still reclaim. A time when the days were full of sunshine, worries were few, and something as simple as a sweet crunchy apple seemed like a real treat. And sometimes I think that maybe I could return - if not to that time, then at least to that place. Not as a child, of course, but perhaps in a more permanent way.
I’ve long thought that our cemeteries are mostly a waste of space. They really hold only memories, not people, so why not turn things around? Let’s stop using good land to store worthless husks and instead use those husks to improve the land. We could save the expense of embalming and coffins with a simple, shallow burial that would return nutrients to the soil. Even just scattering cremated ashes would do some good. We don't really need the headstones anyway - memories linger even when the physical remains are gone. And today a smartphone app with GPS would allow us to create virtual cemeteries customized to show each person's loved ones. We could easily find and visit the physical location – or use something like Google Earth to view it at any time from any place.
For myself, I’d like to be buried in that old apple orchard, among the trees that I remember so fondly. Over the years a little bit of me would become part of the trees, a legacy to those that follow. And I’d like to think that my grandchildren might stroll through that orchard in the crisp autumn air. They’d admire the green trees against a clear blue sky, pick a sweet red apple, take a bite, and think of me.