In My Orchard

by Hilary Masters    /  October 31, 2009  / No comments

Originally published in the North American Review, this essay is now part of Masters’ collection “In Rooms of Memory,” (University of Nebraska Press, 2009)

My orchard here in Pittsburgh consists of two apple trees, a pear and a peach. These are small trees, developed in a nursery as dwarfs of the species and which I espaliered against the brick wall of my neighbor’s house, for to allow them to grow to their natural shape would make an impenetrable jungle.

The technique of this two-dimensional horticulture was practiced by the medieval gardener when the security of the walled manor came first and the cultivation of fresh fruit was secondary. The supple shoots and limbs of a young tree were trained to follow a trellis fixed against a surface so they grew flatly and the different designs of these arrangements are as various as were the imaginations of the growers.

For the peach trees—and I had two at the start—I chose a pattern much like the arms of a menorah, rigging the design with stout nylon cords threaded through eye-bolts screwed into the brick wall. Year after year, I carefully led the pliable limbs of the trees along these lines, tying them off at certain points and gently bending them to the left or to the right into the 90-degree turns that put them on a perpendicular course. For the apple and the pear trees I chose a pattern called vertical cordon and its name gives its description.

The trees dutifully followed directions and grew wonderfully and within a few years we enjoyed fresh peaches picked within feet of Mimosa Lane where the city’s garbage trucks rumble on early Thursday mornings. The apple and pear trees seemed hesitant to bear fruit but as I went about this modest, first harvest it amused me to think that I had reproduced a moment in this city backyard that had been shared by a medieval family hundreds of years before who, in turn, had regenerated this scrumptious import from the fabled orchards of Araby. One delicious bite of a peach connected me with that history and surely the trip was equal to the effect of that nibble of a cookie in that fin de siecle Paris drawing room.

So vanity as well as fruit has been cultivated as within a family when all seems going to plan and where offspring follow a determined course, making all the right turns. The child’s fruitful performance ennobles the progenitor—his wisdom and character are embellished as his agronomy is verified. I gave no credit to the peach for its deliciousness nor did I recognize its efforts growing through the mannered course I had laid out for my own gratification.

But something went wrong. One peach tree began to falter, losing leaves at the bottom of its trunk while the crop at the top became minimal. It resembled an injured athlete determined to complete the race and hobbling toward the finish on the strength of instinct only. The leaves became mottled by ugly growths that no nurseryman could identify or at least recommend a remedy for. Then the leaves fell, the limbs atrophied and the tree died.

Nor did the apple trees bear fruit though their blossoms were many and their leaves glossy and healthy looking. But the pear tree did produce fruit—one. This single pear hung in the center of the tree, and the heavy foliage of the apple trees on either side made a bower for its stunning appearance. I watched it take shape and color over a season as its first pip gradually swelled into the feminine form of its maturity. The cool greenness of its youth softened into a lemon yellow that deepened as the fruit grew larger. I feared a bird might peck at it or a prankish squirrel knock it from its limb but the pear continued to grow untouched and hung like a small lantern in the depths of its greenery. One day, as I lightly measured its sensuous curve, it came undone and fell into my hand.

The purity of its shape, the unblemished texture of its golden skin declared its perfection–it was genius and invention all in one. Too good to be eaten,  it reminded me of a rare vintage wine that should only be laid down and never opened yet growing more valuable with each passing year. But there was no way I could stay the inevitable rot that had already begun its course. I showed it to my wife and neighbors. I wanted to somehow send it to friends or even fly them in from different parts of the country to see this ultimate pear, and if any made fun of its singleness I would suggest that one perfect pear might be sufficient. The tree had bent all its efforts to produce this single, flawless specimen and what more could be asked of it. What a cruel destiny (as well as a handy metaphor) for excellence to be achieved only to be consumed in a moment. The fruit was sublime, sweet and juicy, and the tree has borne no more.

But on further reflection, the yen to seek metaphor put aside, it became clear why this single tree produced only this slight harvest for pear trees require cross pollination, and in my ignorance I had planted only one of them. From where had the pollen come to instigate this particular germination? None of my neighbors in the Central Northside have pear trees and we are many miles from suburban yards, too far for an errant bee to navigate. Something carried on the wind, perhaps—an immigrant gamete that landed by chance on my pear tree and flourished. The random coupling was the remarkable event.

Meanwhile, the stricken peach had succumbed, and as I dug up its dead root one spring morning the branches of the other four trees leaned forward as if bent in grief but, of course, it was the sun that drew them from their wall moorings. The power of its attraction had even pulled some of the eyebolts out from the masonry. Simultaneously, that morning sunlight also illuminated my folly, my ignorance and impatience with proper method for, without thinking, I had planted these trees against a wall with northern exposure. The sun only attended them fully in the late afternoon. Opposite, on the line I shared with my other neighbor, the sunlight was continuous from morning to night, but only a chain link fence marked this boundary. I could have erected wooden trellises there to support the trees but my imagination had been limited by the images of medieval walls and the romantic allusion of growing goodness within a sanctuary. I had ignored the sun’s compass, and it was a wonder that any fruit had appeared on these branches at all. The prodigious effort that had produced that single pear became even more remarkable, even heartbreaking.

Now, the remaining peach has been stricken with the same disease that took its companion, but the top branches—those most available to sunlight my dumbness has finally perceived—blossomed to produce a couple of dozen extraordinary fruit. This top-heavy bounty was meant to teach me a lesson, I think; a super-arboreal demonstration of what could have been done if I had only been sensitive to the tree’s needs. If I had not denied it sunlight.

Thus, my stewardship has been put in a bad light also. Within the urban confines of my backyard only my witless conceit has flourished. We know that out of mean environments, phenomenal progeny can occur but how that happens begets its own thicket of theories. Years ago, and in another life, I planted 5,000 conifers on a hillside in upstate New York. They were tiny fledglings of red and white pine and larch procured from the state conservation service, and it was very hot work. One daughter brought me glasses of water during the days of my labor and the other child helped me place the seedlings in the slits my spade made in the earth. I saw myself as Dr. Astrov in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” creating and bequeathing this forest to future generations, and if I were to be known at all it would be for this pinewood in Columbia County—that recognition would be enough. How noble!

The summer heat made me dizzy though it could have been the vapors given off by my sweaty ego, but the trees took root and thrived. They grew to impressive size as the children also grew and went their different ways, as I also grew apart from that hillside. Later a blight struck the red pine and they withered, turned brown and today reportedly stand like dry sticks. The forest I had planned to leave for others has become a field of tinder.

My friend Jeffrey Schwartz, the anthropologist, has posited that we have descended from the tree-living orangutan and this ancestry may explain the special affinity we have for trees. It is an attraction not without some danger—a walk in the woods can refurbish the soul as well as threaten the body. The wilderness is important in our history and literature, as singular as a clump of cottonwoods rising above a lone prairie farmhouse. To be under a tree and feel its rough bark against our backs is to center ourselves in the universe.  We build tree houses and ravage forests and some of us attempt to make orchards in city backyards.

This spring one of the apple trees is bearing fruit. Its limbs are loaded with small green apples and their jolly shapes, their daily increase in weight, bring the tree’s limbs lower and lower, reaching out for more light. This pose of supplication may also pardon my careless husbandry.

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