I went to an orchard in Michigan this weekend--not a pick-your-own orchard, unfortunately; that'll come later in the season and in Indiana. This one was all pre-bagged and ready to go, priced and labeled and just waiting for someone to grab up a bushel or a peck and hurry out the door. The orchard started back in 1865, I was told. The Civil War had just ended and someone came home from battle and started planting trees . . . or seeds or saplings or whatever they might have been called. Now, 145 years later, the fruit trees still stand, all lined up obediently and waiting to be plucked.
Plucked--a fresh, ripe kind of word that feels like what it is and smells of fall harvests, crispy apples, juicy last-of-the-season peaches that you get to eat cut up, a slice of bread and butter on the side, a glass of milk to wash it all down. There's something about the bounty that comes from trees--something high up yet reachable--that makes me feel hopeful. You can have your berries and your vines; I'll take my trees.
When I was a kid, we had two June apple trees in our side yard. I have no idea if that was the real variety name or if it was just a nickname derived from when the apples ripened--not that I paid any attention to when they ripened. No, being no more than eight or nine, I didn't wait until they were ready to be plucked. I yanked and tugged and pried those little things off and then ate until my stomach ached from devouring them before their time. And then the smell of them rotting beneath the tree because the novelty had worn off by summer's end? Not a bad smell at all to me. It's what fall is about. It's a time of decay and dying. It's a preparation for winter. It's nature and natural and the makings of whatever newness the death and decay can bring on when spring needs its nourishment.
The old guy sorting apples at this orchard in Michigan was 92 years old and didn't look a day over 90. But he was there and seemed content and occupied, still being 'useful' as so many people as they age feel they are not. With my four kids all in school full day now, I wonder how soon before I become, as a friend of mine put it recently, an inactive parent--one that's there but isn't needed quite so much anymore. It's a thought that disturbs me, even if it is nature and natural. I'm not ready to not feel useful anymore.
Ron and I were looking over a box of peach seconds--the ones no one wants to buy unless for preserves, because no one wants to eat them, split apart and rotting as so many are. One of the old women working there said, "Kids won't eat 'em. Too many spots." I agreed. Then she added, full of righteous indignation, "Unless they're raised right . . . like I raised mine." The implication was clear in its context: she raised her kids right; no one else did anymore--certainly not me, who had started to walk away from the box at that point, knowing full well my kids would never eat a peach that bugs had found their way into.
So I went back and bought the case. And last night I made peach butter with some of the fruit. Tonight I'll make more. We'll eat some of it, give a lot of it away, I suspect; there were an awful lot of peaches in that box.
My older sister made apple dolls the summer we moved from Arizona to Virginia and camped out at a lake while my dad looked for a job and a house. I was four and she was eleven. I don't remember much except the smell of the slow rot and watching their faces crinkle up and dry out over the course of those summer weeks. I thought they were kind of eerie looking, like little people all shriveled up. My dad bought a shrunken head years ago. Don't know where he got it or where it is now. Not much different from an apple head, really--except the story behind it, which is forever lost anyway.
I wondered as I watched the people running this orchard how long ago some of them stopped loving the fall, at what point it started reminding them too much of their own winter's approach. I wondered whether the old man at 92 had ever resented the smell of rotting fruit or if he still loved the bitter taste of a June apple and simply learned to deal with the stomach aches. I wondered if the old lady in her 70s had her kids around still, or her grandkids. I wondered whether the spring in them refreshed her now and then. I wondered whether the old man, who looked to be her husband and about the same age, had a smile somewhere underneath his severe frown and was just trying to remember how to bring it up again.
Fall used to be my favorite season until I was pregnant with my second child and had morning sickness throughout those cooling-down months. The smell of dried-out leaves and pumpkin seeds still makes my stomach turn a bit. But I'm trying to get over that queasy sensation. I miss how much I loved the fall. I want it back. And I want it back before I forget how useful we can be to each other. Hope is a good thing, after all, and always ripe for the plucking.