The frozen apples, still attached to thin branchlets, were covered with a newly fallen snow. My eye was attracted to these apples immediately as I toured the landscape in the old orchard. Like a cake covered with frosting, or a pizza topped with melted mozzarella the apples seemed somehow complete with their new cover in a visually imperfect way. But who is to say what is perfect in the natural world?
Many years ago my sense of security and the notion of perfection was shaken by my grandfather. Gramps was a gruff sort of chap. Some saw him as a downright grump. For those who took the time to know him they would see a heart of gold beneath the very crusty exterior. He loved to laugh and a good joke was always appreciated by him. He loved his family, although he often showed it in an ill-mannered way. And one thing was very clear; that I was the apple of his eye and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for me.
I was trying to select a Christmas tree amongst scores growing in an old field. The trees were not pruned and none really fit the image of the perfect tree that I had in my mind. My grandfather watched as I rejected one after another. When I got to the last one and was ready to start the selection process all over again my grandfather put his hand on my shoulder.
“What’s the problem Billy?” he inquired.
“I can’t find a good tree, there aren’t any here”! I exclaimed in disappointment.
“What’s wrong with that one”? he said pointing at a tree with that was well shaped but had a spindly top.
“It’s got no branches at the top!” I declared.
“And that one?” he asked pointing at a tree that was clearly flat on one side.
“It’s got no branches on one side!”, I replied with a bit of impatience, “It is no where close to perfect!”
“Perfect?” questioned my grandfather, “You want perfect?”
“Yes!” I replied and started to look at some trees that had some semblance of decency as far as a Christmas tree is concerned.
“Define perfect.” said my grandfather.
“You know, a tree that is perfectly formed, like the trees you see on a Christmas card.” I replied.
My grandfather’s impatient nature was getting the best of him.
“That tree doesn’t exist! Look, and pay attention to me young man!” he said in a louder than normal voice.
“You see this tree, the one you think has a spindly top? It may not be perfect in your eyes but it’s doing its damndest to reach for the sky! Imagine that it’s not perfect because it wants more sunlight! And this one, the one you don’t think is perfect because it doesn’t have enough branches on one side? It’s making room for it’s neighbor, a very, very nice gesture and one you should pay close attention to!” my grandfather stated emphatically.
“So, you see, your idea of perfect has nothing to do with perfect in nature. These trees are behaving in a perfectly natural way for which you give them no credit!” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. My eight year old idea of perfection had just been completely blown out of the water. At first I wanted to reject his statements as the blithering statements of an old guy but even at my young age I could see the wisdom in the words.
I looked at the one with the spindly top again. I liked the notion of it reaching for the sun. And then I looked at the tree that was flat on the backside. I liked the notion of this tree making room for its neighbor trees even more.
“Let’s cut this one!” I stated thinking that I could put the side with branches against the wall.
“O.K!” said grandfather gathering that I had gotten his point.
That Christmas my family could not stop talking about what a lovely tree I had chosen. I suspected my grandfather had told our family members about our conversation, but there was no way to be sure.
And now, fifty years later, I am standing here in an old orchard looking at snow on apples. The fresh snow on top of this yellow apple mottled with brown spots and grayish scars appears to be imperfect. The curculio beetle has burrowed inside to leave eggs behind. The coddling moth has found a nest for its larvae. Fungi like apple scab and cedar apple rust make defects that challenge my notion of flawlessness. Thanks to my grandfather I can see the apple in a different light. It is part of the circle of life. It is perfectly natural.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in December of 2009.