Dying by Inches

By: 
Janie Thibodeau Martin

Alongside the gravel road, on the edge of our property, is an ancient apple tree.  I was surprised when I first noticed it about eight years ago.  Unlike the aged orchards you see by old farmsteads, this was an isolated tree, surrounded on three sides by second-growth trees that tower over it.

The solitary tree may have been deliberately planted, but I suspect it was naturally seeded by birds or apple-eating mammals, or perhaps the result of an apple core, tossed by a human. The trunk is covered with the remains of sizeable branches, indicating it once had access to plentiful sunshine, but now it’s fighting for space with lofty maples and two big white pines. In response, it has become “half” a tree, with branches reaching toward the road where it can get some morning sun, but nothing on the sides where it has lost the battle to taller neighbors.

Our first few years here, it was gnarly but seemed relatively healthy. It bloomed each spring, and in fall always had apples; the smallish green heritage type which drops slowly, a few at a time in the fall; and even had rotting and frozen apples clinging to branches in winter. It is clear this tree was well known to the local deer, as a well-used trail passes underneath it. This trail was probably established by the ancient ancestors of the deer who use it now, when the tree was young but first started producing fruit.

But in the last couple years I noted signs of trouble. Branches were dying, although they still received some sunlight.  And today, as I slowed my walk to look; I noticed the tree is at least three-fourths dead.

One dying branch has lost all it’s leaves, but a few tiny apples still cling to the bare branch. There is only one small area of the tree that still looks healthy; perhaps all the root system can support in its weakened condition.

Out of curiosity, I looked online to see how long “wild” (uncultivated) apple trees live and apparently 100 years is about the maximum. This old survivor may be close to that, and its time of providing pollen, nectar and food for wildlife and insects is nearly over.

The tree’s neighbors will soon claim the little patches of sunlight that nurtured the old tree for so long and as the years pass little will remain but the stump.

The deer trail will continue to be used; but the purpose for its location will be lost to time.  The stump will rot, and enrich the soil for the benefit of others.

This is the way of Mother Nature, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I am sad although I know that; maybe because I love this place as it is, and all its life forms so much, that the loss of this ancient apple tree feels personal to me.

BOOK I AM READING: “Neither Snow nor Rain,” A history of the United States Postal Service, by Devin Leonard.  (Non-fiction.)  It is a fascinating read. Being a federal agency, its history is completely entangled with politics. Did you know that at one time, you could take a child to the post office, have him/her weighed, pay postage and ship the youngster?  And in the spirit of “there is nothing new under the sun,” privatizing the post office is an idea that has been around since the very beginning...and for good reasons, it hasn’t happened yet. Yes, it loses money. Doing what they do, reaching every single address six days a week; ADDS immense value to our culture, social bonds and economy. Someone needs to calculate the U.S. Postal Service “cost benefit” to citizens, so the value of this service would be as visible to us as its deficit is.

I welcome commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address:  JanieTMartin@gmail.com 

Janie Thibodeau Martin

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