Unchopping a Tree

An expansive field with pine trees lining the right side under a bright blue sky with fluffy clouds

W.S. Merwin began his Tale…

“After many winters the moss
finds the sawdust crushed bark chips
and says old friend
old friend”

What is believed to be the original wild apple forest rests in the Dzungarian Alps, in Central Asia. From that forest, nestled in the mountains between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China, sprung the thousands of apple varietals spread across the globe today. Over forty of those grow here at Nye Hill.

Merwin suggests starting with the leaves – gathering and attaching them to their respective places. “It is not arduous work,” he says, “Unless major limbs were smashed or mutilated.” He admits it would be good to have the help of ants, or mice, or squirrels in this task, but alas, they have all learned, with time, to leave men to their own work.

Ashmead’s Kernel is three centuries old. Considered the very best dessert apple. Black Oxford is a rare Maine heirloom, makes exceptional apple sauce. Esopus Spitzenburg was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple trees.

If the tree was hollow “in whole or in part”, says Merwin, and contained old nests or hoards of nuts or hives of one kind or another, then “the contents will have to be repaired as necessary, and reassembled, insofar as possible”. Spider webs too.

Fuji is “Quite tart off the tree,” writes the orchardist Michael Phillips, “But heavenly come the start of the new year” Phillips adds, noting that this apple stores exceptionally well. Gravenstein originated in Italy in the 1660s. It was brought to California by Russian settlers in the 1820s. Grimes Golden is thought to have sprung from a seed planted by Johnny Appleseed himself.

Putting in place the tackle and scaffolding is “ticklish work”, almost always causing further damage to the area. “But,” notes Merwin, “It can’t be helped.” Taking good care now will save “considerable trouble” later.

Wealthy is a Cherry Crab seedling, 1860. It’s considered a classic all-purpose apple. Honeycrisp is a newcomer, cultivated by the University of Minnesota in 1991. Here at Nye Hill, it grows aside Roxbury Russet, early 1600s and, per Michael Phillips, possibly the oldest named variety in America. Our favorite, for obvious reasons.

It is time to erect the trunk. The delicacy of the task cannot be overstated. A leaf or two will snap off again. Nuts will shift in the hollows. “Every slight upward heave” will have you holding your breath, from the moment the chains tighten until the trunk hangs vertical above the stump, “splinter above splinter.”

Freedom and Liberty were both cultivated by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in the 1950s. We liked the names.

Splinters perfectly aligned, it is time to fix one to the other. Not a simple thing. The core can be braced, yes, but “that is not the part of the trunk that conducted life from the roots up to the branches.” For that, the outer layers and the bark have to be restored. “The chips must be gathered, and the sawdust, and returned to their former positions.” This is made more difficult by the earth itself, which lays claim to these pieces “very quickly”.

Kingston Black, from the cider producing regions of England along with Dabinett, a cider varietal discovered in Somerset around 1850. Of course, Cox’ Orange Pippen, first grown by the retired brewer and horticulturalist Richard Cox in Buckinghamshire, England in 1830.

A “certain beauty” will reveal itself in the pattern of chips as you fit them back into place. The adhesive for this is not the rigid brace used for the core. It “is transparent and runs into the fibers” of the bark and subcutaneous layers. But “it does not set the sap flowing again.” Not yet anyway.

Calville Blanc d’Hiver, France, 17th Century, now very popular in Germany. Popular here too, we get queries every Fall. Mother, a Massachusetts varietal discovered in the 1800s. Repinaldo do Liebana, a Spanish varietal some describe as “perfect” for making cider.

When the day comes the tree is all restored, you will worry about removing the scaffolding and all its support. “You have come to accept it there.” And “when the last sustaining piece is removed and the tree stands again on its own” you will feel as if the entire tree’s weight stands on your heart.

Northern Spy may have originally been called Northern Pie Apple, and is also known as Red Spy and Red Northern Spy. Found in an orchard at East Bloomfield, New York, with seedlings brought from Connecticut about 1800.

You listen for a thud, or a warning creek. You steel yourself at the first breeze. You watch the tree, and you “are afraid the motion of the clouds will be enough to push it over.” But…

“…there is nothing you can do.
Others are waiting.
Everything is going to have to be put back.”

So Merwin explains unchopping a tree.

We are planting them. When someone asks us what we are doing in these most interesting times, that’s our answer. “Planting trees.” We are still doing all the things a New England farm does this time of year, mostly a lot of seeding, and we do plant trees every Spring, but this Spring we have been planting more. And not just apples. The other day we planted pear trees. White Doyenne, Louise Bonne d’Jersey and Conference. A 17th Century English proverb says “You plant pears for your heirs.” Slow to mature, even slower to fruit, these trees we planted the past few weeks may not yield a single pear for a decade or longer. But as Thomas Fuller wrote in Gnomologia, “He that plants trees loves others beside himself.”

Jean-Paul Sartre said “We are our choices.” We choose to plant. It is our way of unchopping a tree. Because everything is going to have to be put back, and this is how we start.