Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE flavors of fruits which you have eaten in childhood strangely cling to you. You taste them in memory, and your mouth literally waters for them. You never get such apples now as Bill and Joe used to carry to the village school.. They came, most likely, from a hoard in the hay-mow; if so, they were stolen from the best trees of some farmer's orchard. Happy the boy or girl who innocently ate of the mellowed apples of such a hoard, which had been forced into ripening in their nest of dried grass. Their flavors were shut in by darkness, and their scents and tints, which would have exhaled in daylight, passed permanently into them. Their pulp melted and trickled through the fingers of eaters, with a deep color and a far-reaching odor. Brought out from the pockets of boys and girls, they were as bright and fresh as the eyes which longed for them.
Straying through a field or pasture in childhood, you have come upon a wild tree loaded with fruit, of which you have plucked and eaten. You were hardy and hungry, and they seemed to you the best apples you had ever tasted. Passing that way in after-years, you call to mind this fruit's high relish, and are curious to try it again. You find the tree, half rotten, but its live limbs still bearing. You search in vain for apples like the old ones. You fling them from you by the dozens, for you find them all, whether on the tree or on the sod, sour and knotty and mean. You wonder whether the fine flavor has gone out of the apple with the decay of the tree, or a keen appreciation has gone out of you. No matter which; once you liked it, and the tradition will always be a real and pleasant thing. Fruit tastes better picked up from a sod. A yellow apple bedded in a tuft of green grass, besprinkled with dew, and crisp with early ripeness, palatable as you snatch it, may be a crabbed thing when bought from a huckster's stall. I used to eat freely of sweets and sours in my grandfather's orchard, and daily made its round, thrusting aside the grass for windfalls, puckering my mouth with acrid juices, flinging clubs and stones at favorite branches, and filling my pocket with fresh-fallen fruits. Very few of its apples were positively uneatable; This one might set your teeth on edge, or make your throat tingle, but you were likely, the very next time you passed the tree that bore it, to snatch at the same branch for the sake of the smart. Apples which, when carried into the house and left lying about for a day or two, were thrown away as useless for cooking, picked freshly fallen from the earth had a keen, spicy tang, pleasant if sparsely taken.
There is hardly any wild apple so worthless that in it does not lurk a latent sweetness, waiting to be let loose by some condition of time or place, a racy and transient flavor to be caught on the wing. A toothmark sufficed for some of my grandfather's apples, for others a single mouthful; many were to be half eaten, — wormy windfalls, for instance; and the fruits of certain trees with sodden, watery cores. Others, mild and fine-grained, were relishable close up to the hulls. A few, compact with malic worth, seemed utterly to dissolve. Such fruit was to be found here and there in all old orchards, the delight of children, and oddly named by farmers' wives, pudding-sweets, long-noses, red-cheeks, and the like; wild apples, not large, but well shaped, finely colored, and of good grain. Paths went straight from the back-doors to these trees, and the grass under them was matted and tangled. Trails were apt to lead from them to gaps in the walls, and much of their plumpest fruitage found its way into the hoards of thieving boys. The rich flavor of them all was due to their utter freshness. The true aroma of any fruit comes from the life of it, — life drawn from the sunshine, the showers, the air, and soil of its own locality. When you pluck it it begins to die. It follows, then, that the products of your own soil give to you alone their true ownership, and the finest reward of your tillage is that to you only can they offer their unimpaired juices.
I knew a tree once — old when I first saw it, dead now — which stood in an angle of a country garden. Close in the corner was a rhubarb-root, and along the fence a row of currant-bushes; rank growths all of them, but good hiding-places for windfalls. Never was a tree so beset and persecuted as this. Its higher branches always hung full of forked sticks; the hard-trodden sod under it was thick with leaves, and the currant-bushes and rhubarb-root were trampled and torn. Three or four of its huge branches stretched over the fence, and the smart-weed bed underneath them was always hunted by eager children. Long poles were lying about outside, which, after all the apples had been knocked from these overhanging branches, were slyly thrust under the fence for more, and this was called "hooking" by the young pilferers. This apple-tree made early risers of the children of the house which owned it; and after a storm sharp was the contest for the gathering of its windfalls. It had a slow decay, a natural kind of ageing, and left off bearing limb by limb. The sparser its fruit was the more precious it grew, and the last few apples of the season were always the best esteemed of all. They were truly wonderful apples, — piquant things, — small, bright yellow without, mottled with brown-edged, crimson spots; snow white and sparkling within; tasting best when knocked out, late in autumn, from the fork of some high-up branch. It was only a great, wild, apple-tree, but it grew into the life of the house, and the whole summer long gave to it a surprising measure of beauty and comfort. Its blossoms were of pink and white, the prettiest of their kind, and they perfumed a whole village. The setting of its fruits was the delight of all the neighbors' children, and the giving of them, when ripened, became a hospitality. They were thick and beautiful amongst the green leaves, and the underlying sod, enriched by them, was the best-beloved spot of the whole garden.
Ungrafted trees have a riotous way of growing, making up in size what they lack in fruitage; and the thinnest-bearing of them, when in blossom, perfumes the air as sweetly as the best. The trees in my grandfather's orchard which bore the meanest fruit seemed to have the most and brightest blossoms, and for a few days were the glory of the landscape. You can never forget the scent of apple-blossoms; nor, when once seen, the beauty which is given to plain things by them. An old apple-orchard has a pathetic interest. Its trees decay slowly, lingering after those who planted them, with gnarled trunks and distorted limbs, keeping watch over the ruins of deserted homesteads. If you see a few, solitary, half-dead apple-trees in a field, or stumps of trees buried in suckers, near them you will be quite sure to find a cellar, — filled with stones and bricks and tangled wild-growth, — the site of an ancient home. You may find these dying old trees overhanging the walls of grass-grown country highways. If you will dislodge their tumbled fruit from between the stones, you will often be well repaid by their wild and racy flavor. Even if you cannot eat them, they are pleasant to look upon; and the tree which, in all lands, best holds its own, which seems nearest to you, is the tree which has always been a generous giver to you, the homely, grateful, apple-tree.
Best of all orchards, my grandfather's, full of great trees, waxing old and weak; with their trunks rotted, their barks shaggy, their limbs all dead at the ends. Dear old orchard, with your smooth turf, your many fierce-fruited trees, your few but sufficient ones bearing apples of rare worth! Going back in memory to your gathering, I walk straight to the sweet trees and the sour trees of your best repute. I hear the thud of your brimful carts, pouring their loads into the press, and see busy hands heaping up the fallen fruit. The gifts, that the summer suns and winds and rains have given to you, lie beautiful upon the earth, in balls of crimson and green and gold. Your yearly mission is over, and the air is fragrant with the life that has passed into them and out of you, with the growing and ripening of the year. I forget, — the thing was and is not; the harvest was bountiful, and was gathered in; the trees waxed old and died.
On the side of the orchard nearest the house a row of later-planted trees had been grafted, but with so little care as to stock that their fruits were no better than cross-breeds, with a strong leaning to native wildness. Moreover, the trees themselves, too old for the process, did not take to it. They were unhealthy and tricky of bearing, and seemed to be trying to thrust off their superadded branches. Many of the oldest trees were rotten to the core, yet still persisted in bringing to the orchard their yearly gift of leafage, flower, and fruit. After a strong wind it was always feared that one or more of them would be found prostrate upon the ground. The fall of one sent a thrill of sorrow through the household. It was sure to have been endeared by some tender association, had been marked by a name, and was not lightly to be parted with. It was pitiful to look at its branches, heaped and crushed, covered with their last greenness; its trunk jagged and rotten; a worthless wreck to be put out of sight.
The wild pear was a hard, uneatable thing, properly called choke-pear. Unlike the apple, it never surprised you by any palatable variations, and, save that the housewives sometimes stewed it into a tolerable preserve, it was of little use.
The garden cherries of ancient homesteads. were less untamed, more serviceable than the pears. Almost every garden held two or three trees, the fruit of which was much esteemed for cookery. This cherry was round, plump, richly red, and thoroughly relishable when plucked from the sunny side of a well-tended tree. A profuse bearer, this tree, with its high contrast of fruit and glossy, dark-green leaves, was an ornamental thing, often standing in the front yard of the house. It was apt to straggle in its growth and get shaggy as to its bark, but was pleasant to look upon from its white blossoming until it was stripped by the frost. It was an early bloomer, thrusting out its snow-white petals before its leaf-buds had burst open, almost the first floral gift of spring to the quickening life of the garden. All cherry-blossoms have an untamed look and scent, as if in them the richness and flavor which goes into later flowers had gotten snowbound. They are very dainty; they come suddenly, and flutter and fall and melt away, as if they were really born out of frost-work. Little children used to carry sprays of them to school, and later they beset the trees for fruit, fighting with the birds for their short-lived harvest. I remember two great, scraggy, old trees, hard to climb, whose close-set branches nipped like a vice, but which held, quite up in the sky, fruit full of imprisoned sunshine. For several weeks, in cherry-time, they were noisy trees. There were always two or three children wedged between their forked branches, who chattered and ate and kept a flutter amongst the flocking birds.
Half-way between the house and woodland was a wild cherry-tree, which bore blossom and fruit with a riotous profuseness. The wild cherry was a savage of its kind. This one rose straight as an arrow from a heap of rocks; a tall, handsome tree. The rocks were matted with sumachs and blackberry-bushes, and the place was said to be snaky; yet it was lovely with its tree and shrubbery and white flowers, and was always strewn, in fruit time, with broken twigs and forked sticks. The wild cherry is a prettier tree every way than the tame red. It is round-trunked, pyramidal, glossy-barked, with breezy, profuse, white blossoms and small black, graceful, clustered fruit, and it binds up in its fibres rare, healing juices. Black-cherry trees often stand thick along old walls, unnoted by the farmer until quite grown. They give to the rocks in spring a beauty which the sumach, with its crimson leaves, gives in autumn; for a few days they outline a field with their pure, white, pendulous blossoms. Their fruit looks toothsome, but is pungent and acrid; yet, like the wild apple, when plucked from the sunny side of a tree, in field or pasture, it would not fail there to please you. Nobody ever plants wild cherry-trees, but they spring up freely in out-of-the-way places. Close by fences and in rock heaps, they easily escape hostile ploughs, and thrust themselves picturesquely out of the rubbish of a field into the features of a landscape. They are hardier and less liable to disease than the garden species, and the balsam which runs in their veins is not of more worth than are their varied aspects of beauty.
Plums were once raised with little care in extreme New England. Peaches were also an infrequent growth. Black gum has nearly killed out the former; severe winters the latter. Like all later-maturing fruits, ripened under the slow processes of a New England summer, the plums were pulpy, fine-grained, and delicious. They are to be regretted, as the one thing which, in this bleak climate, simulated a tropical fervor. My grandfather's half a dozen plum-trees, when last seen, were black, blighted, and unsightly; and the single peach-tree had dwindled down to suckers, sprung from the past winter's blight.
But after all the tree which has best stood wear and tear, which presents itself to me, seeking for it, with the most familiar aspect, is the butternut-tree by the well. No matter how rotten its core is, how ragged its branches, I love its old age even better than I did its youth. Next to that my heart goes out to the trees, spared by the woodman's axe, in the woodland beyond the orchard. I saw a strong man once crying like a child, because of the cutting down of an old tree upon his lawn. He said all his children had played under it, and it was a part of his life. I felt sorry for him, for his grief brought back to me the morning when I missed my great maple from my chamber window, and, looking out, saw it lying, majestic but smitten, across my summer garden. Of all my trees I loved this one best. It had been cut down by mistake, and as it lay, with its leaves withering in the sunshine, it seemed like a murdered thing. It was lost from my window; it was gone from the landscape; it had been cruelly torn from the remembered image of a dead child, — this speechless yet speaking thing, which had grown into my heart.
Trees have their social aspect. Many have been intimately known by me; solitary trees, and clumps of trees, and forests of trees, memorable by association. How you love to recall the trees which grew about your old homestead! You were drawn to them by little things. In the forked branch of this you watched a bird's nest, out of the rotten trunk of that grew a thrifty fern, here you perched aloft, there you swung. In varied ways the rugged old trees catered to your young delights and wants, and grew beautiful and dear to you. Trees were my childhood companions, constant to me and I to them. I learned their tricks of costume and ways of growth. I cannot this day tell in what dress I loved them best; whether in the tender green of spring, the deeper colors of later days, the crimson and gold and russets of autumn, or the soft grays of the dying year. There were groups of trees in pasture and lowland at my grandfather's, which are joys of memory, because of rare shadings and colors which were cast upon and overlapped into them by the passing of the seasons. There were four trees standing in the middle of the rocky pasture whose interlocked branches were unfolded, like the pages of a richly-illuminated book, by the autumn ripening of their leaves. Standing by themselves, they were the most prominent things to be seen, bright as flame in the sunshine; They were yearly emblazoned upon the gray pasture, and it was as if the condensed richness and ripeness of the year had poured into them its old wine.
All woods have their speech: grim old woods, tangled and matted and solemn and dark; treacherous woods, wet and mossy and full of pitfalls; odorous woods, bright with ferns and flowers and streaks of sunshine.
Looking at painted forests, there are apt to come to me things never put upon canvas; such as the sweet odor of a smoking, resinous wood, caught at midnight from a burning forest; a subtle, far-reaching, never-to-be-forgotten scent, the breath of dying pines. With the scent comes also a little cottage planted against a savage background of blackened trees and smouldering sod, a weird forest night scene, burned into a child's imagination. No country habitation could seem more alone than this house at midnight, close by the highway, in the heart of a forest, dimly disclosed by moonlight, its lamps all out, its tenants sleeping, so lonely, so fragile, so exposed, and yet so peaceful, so strong, so safe, respected by man's humanity, watched over by God's providence.
Of all voices of the woods and the night, the low wail of the whippoorwill is the saddest. It was a bird of ill omen to farmers' wives, and the woodland passed into evil repute because it was haunted by one. Any sound thrust in a forest upon the silence of night is positive, and what would be unnoticed in the daytime becomes a terror or a support to the benighted traveller. The thud of his horse's hoofs and the rattle of his wheels do not shut out the slightest crackle of twigs, and he hears many strange sounds which he cannot disentangle from the darkness.
I hear, as if just passing it, on my way to my grandfather's, in the heart of the long forest, the lapping of a pond at night upon its shores. The horse shies at the waves and the driftwood, the wheels grind into the sand. The bridge at the outlet is said to be treacherous, and the outlet itself is sullen and dark. In the mile-away horizon the moonlight brings out the one little cottage by the inlet, within a stone's throw of which its owner went down through a treacherous breathing-hole, into which he had driven from across the pond one cold winter's night. My companion tells the old story, and adds to it later accidents. Meanwhile we near the bridge and the inlet, which seems to yawn to swallow us in. We urge the horse carefully, and he, with half-human instinct, plants his feet reluctantly upon the bridge. It sags to one side, and the water ripples past the wheels. We hold our breaths for a minute, and then the passage is made; It was a foolish thing to do, but the risk gave to me a remembered rare voice of a solitary old wood.