High atop a local mountain sits an open area of hardwoods. American beech, red oak, red maple, and small striped maples dominate the forest. Other tree species include a few sugar maples, yellow birch, black cherry, and wild apples. On this chilly November day it is the apple trees that catch my eye.
The schist bedrock is close to the surface at this elevation. On the southern side it is completely exposed, nearly vertical, and poses significant restrictions as travel terrain for humans. It is this shallow soil and depth to bedrock that has kept the forest community small in stature. In general the trees are relatively short but well branched. The trunks to the trees are generally crooked. There is an adequate diversity of trees with a good display of saplings and shrubs in the understory. In the center of this mountain top forest are two apple trees. Both have relatively vertical trunks to a height of about twelve feet and then the branches spread out; evidence that they worked hard to get sunlight from which the produce their own food with photosynthesis.
I am struck by the ample apples that still adore the branches. It is clear that there are two different varieties. And given the distance from any human habitation I must assume that they are located on this precipice quite by accident. It is the two different varieties of the apple tree that help to produce the heavy fruit crop. Cross pollination between different apple varieties produces better yields. I stand here wondering about both tree’s origin.
One tree looks about ten to twenty years older than the other. It likely grew from a translocated seed brought to this site in deer scat about fifty years ago. The second tree, a yellow fruit variety, most likely had the same origin. I am amazed how accidents like these yield great benefits. For a minute I ponder how accidents in nature have changed the course of evolution of nearly all plant and animal species. How marvelous it is to realize the intricacies of these happenings and the beauty of our planet. And whether you believe that these accidents are purely happenstance or are somehow directed by an
all knowing energy it is both magical and awe inspiring. This is the type of inspiration that keeps me wandering wild landscapes.
The apple tree originates from Kasakhstan. As best as we can determine the original species Malus sieversii was hybridized over a very long period of time with Malus sylvestris (from which today’s crab apple is derived) to form today’s apple Malus domestica. The modern apple first migrated from Kasakhstan throughout Turkey and eventually into the rest of Europe where both the early Greeks and later the Romans also contributed to its colonization throughout the old world. When the first colonists came to North America the only native apple they encountered was the crab apple. All of our large apples on this continent were introduced by the first European settlers who brought with them cuttings and seeds of their favorite European apple varieties.
Most people are surprised to find out that the apple tree is a member of the Rose family. Not only is it directly related to our domestic and wild roses but also to blackberries, strawberries, as well as plums and pears. On a gastronomic level this makes a great deal of sense to me given that there is not better fruit salad then one comprised of strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, apples, and pears. The mere thought of this combination summons memories of my childhood, a quiet picnic along a lazy stream, and exploring the beauty of nature under bright blue skies on a chilly autumn day.
Although certainly not ubiquitous wild apple trees dot our forested New England landscape especially in wooded areas along the edge of old fields. They are a great source of sustenance for a variety of birds and mammals. From wild turkeys to white tailed deer, from gray squirrels to blue jays, from wild voles to the black capped chickadee this wondrous source of nutrition provides the necessary calories to help a lot of wildlife survive the coldest and harshest months that nature can muster.
On this day I sit at the base of the larger of the two apple trees. I pick an apple that has dropped to the ground. It is blemished as all wild apples are. It is a mottled red and green color with rusty looking scabs that adhere to the surface of the thin skin. It is cool to the touch. I take a bite. It is sweet. It is tart. It is crisp and absolutely refreshing.
I hold it up in the air. It’s red color and white flesh contrast against the blue, blue sky on this cold autumn day. I feel as if I am tasting history. I feel as if I am holding a miracle in my hand. And in a rush of thought and overwhelming emotion I feel as if I can see the apple’s exact place in our natural world.
And at this moment this wild apple brings me sustenance both physically and spiritually. It is glorious. It is wondrous. It is the apple of my eye.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in October of 2014