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WILD APPLE TREES
Coming back to my pastures after long absence I am always surprised and often otherwise moved at the changes which I can then clearly see have taken place in them. Had I frequented them day by day these would never have appeared to me. Just as in the countenances of one's best friends, seen often, there seem to be no mutations and we need to think definitely of some past period and then to compare the impression with the present one to see that the child is growing up or the old man growing older, so it is with the face of the earth in familiar spots. Young growth comes little by little, shoulders bow day by day in the aged, yet we do not see it when we dwell constantly with them. It is only after long absence that these things suddenly presented shock us with grief in the one case or touch us with pleasure in the other. After a summer's absence, you find baby shrubs grown to youth and youthful trees putting on a greater air of maturity than they had before. Coming back in spring you are apt to sorrow over the wrecks which the winter has wrought. Last winter's gales and deep snows, and more than all the ice storms, have left havoc behind them whereby you may trace their durance and their intensity. Tall birches whose resiliency never before failed them were so bowed beneath these storm burdens that they still remain with upper branches sweeping the ground, like white slaves sculptured in graceful but profound obeisance before a storm king that has long since swept on with all his retinue. It is strange to see cedars that have always seemed unbendable models of primness and rectitude bowed and distorted in groups by the same resistless force. Very heavy and long continuing must have been the ice on these to thus permanently crook their red heartwood. The heavy brand of the Northern winter yet marks them for his own.
Yet the pastures are so glad with May that it is easy to forget sorrow for the passing old in joy over the surgent beauty of new life. It is easy now to believe what the botanists tell us -- that flower and leaf are but slightly differentiated forms of the same impulse of growth, grading almost imperceptibly one into the other. With new leaves half-grown, with blossoms bursting, it is hard to tell without close inspection which is which, so tender and rich are the colors which unfold from all buds. The yellow of the dandelion, the blue of wood violets, and the purple of the wild cranesbill are not more delicate, nor are they so rich as the red of the young leaves of the white oaks, now as large as a mouse's ear, which is the Indian sign for the time to plant corn. The blossoms of the berry bushes are no more flower-like than the young leaves among which they grow. The green-yellow of barberry blooms is not more fervent than the yellow-green of the tender foliage, and the two colors blend into one burning bush of cool flame. I do not wonder the summer yellow-bird loves to build his nest in the barberry bush. Its colors at this season are his own.
Other surprises meet men in the pasture this spring. There is a particularly beautiful corner which many city people have come to share with me. On holidays and Sundays they troop to their bungalow on the pond shore by the hundred. Yet they must love barberry bushes and sweetfern, red cedar and white pine, as I do, for they have not intruded upon them, but have let their own presence slip quietly into the vacant places, leaving the original proprietors of the spot unvexed. In this I see a new variety of city man and woman growing up. A score of years ago the advent of such a horde would have meant more disaster than the winter's ice storms could have wrought. Between these more kindly adventurers and the pasture folk have grown up a friendly intimacy which is beginning to teach city ways to the pasture denizens. Therein lies the cause of my surprise. Under the soft mists of a cool May day I brushed the dew from the wood grasses and unrolling croziers of cinnamon fern to pause in admiration at shrubs and trees bearing calling cards. Here is a red cedar announcing on a Dennison tag, "I am Juniperus virginiana, known to my intimates as savin." Out of its nimbus of pale yellow flame "Berberis vulgaris" hands me a bit of pasteboard, and dangling from a resinous bough is the statement that it is "Pinus strobus" that welcomes me to fragrant shade. Like many city manners which are new to country folk these seem to be a bit obtrusive at first. Yet on second thought I find it an excellent custom which ought to be enlarged upon in various ways. I can fancy people coming to the bungalow for a day's intercourse with the pasture shrubs that have never before met them, and feeling awkward and disconcerted at not being able to recall names after a wholesale introduction. I have felt that way myself after undergoing a rapid-fire presentation to a room full of people. If, like the pasture shrubs in this particular corner of the pasture world, all these could have worn a name and address on coat-lapel or corsage, I had come up to the second round able to call each fearlessly by name and oftentimes save mutual embarrassment.
But there are minor considerations, after all. I have an idea that the pasture shrubs may never take kindly to thus carrying conventional calling cards, and that shyer still and more nimble-footed friends will finally relieve them of what wind and rain have left. In a year or two I shall find the cards nameless and built in as foundations of nests of jay birds and white-footed mice, or worked up more skillfully yet by white-faced hornets into the gray paper of their nests. This is a carefully adjusted world and the instinctive movements of all creatures go to the keeping of the perfect balance. The normal attacks the abnormal immediately and all along the line. With shrub or bird or beast to exceed the old-world conventions is to be firmly thrust back into the adjustment or wiped out.
Yet, now and then the balance is not exactly disturbed, but rather readjusted by some alien that seems to find a foothold through all opposition and establishes a place through pure vigor and sweetness of character. Of such is the apple tree that came out of the East with other beginnings of civilization, reaching the shores of Western Europe by way of Greece and Rome. Thence it passed with the early Puritans to New England. A pampered denizen of the orchard and garden for a century or two the tree, so far as New England is concerned, seems to be steadily passing to the wild state. Old orchards grow up to pasture and woodland and the trees of a century ago hold on, if at all, in spite of the encroachments of their surroundings. Thus the best of grafted trees pass to the wild state through decay and regrowth, the strength and sweetness of the wood seeming to bear up against all adversity. The old-time trunk rots away, but sprouts from below the graft spring up and the tree reverts to the primitive in habit as well as surroundings. Or seeds, planted by bird or squirrel grow up in rich, modest humus among rough rocks where never a plough could pass and we have some new variety, a veritable wild apple with no semblance of the original fruit about it but often a delectable, wild tang, a flavor and perfume such as no cultivated variety ever had. No tree gives more beauty to the wildest of New England woods and pastures today than this. Innocent of pruning knife or fertilizer its growth has a rugged picturesqueness about it that makes the well trained tree look pusillanimously conventional beside it. I think the perfume of its blossoms is richer and carries farther and I know the pink of the petals is fairer. The wild apple is the queen of all pasture trees today and does not need to bear a tag for the most citified man, the most boudoir-encysted woman to know it. To get beneath an apple tree, even in the wildest and most unfrequented portion of the pasture or woodland, is to all of us like finding one's rooftree once more. The race seems to have been brought up beneath it and I take it for a sign of decadence in the New England character that we no longer plant orchards. It is fortunate for us all that the wild creatures are doing what man will not and it may be that their planting will some day give us so beautiful and well flavored a wild apple that we too shall be moved to plant and the country blossom with orchards once more. All the best varieties were thus seedlings originally and have been perpetuated by transferring their buds to the limbs of less valued stock.
Just as in man bone and sinew count really for little and it is only the subtle essence of being, the spirit behind and within, that matters, so it is the sweet and kindly soul within the apple tree that radiates love to all comers. In apple-blossom time the bees will desert all other flowers for them, not because the honey is sweeter or more plentiful within them but because the wooing fragrance has more of a pull on their heart strings than any other. Again in the late autumn they come to the ripe fruit for final winter stores, drawn by the same subtle essence, distilled from disintegrating, pulpy cells. I believe the first cider making was a rude attempt to imprison and perpetuate this charm, rather than to simply make a spirituous liquor. So richly does the apple tree give forth this spirit of generous delight that to all of us the trees seem to brood and radiate a feeling of parental protection. Man often voices this, and in ancient times there were ceremonies which recognized the tree as a kindly deity to whom reverence was done and thanks given. To "wassail" the trees was more than a jovial excuse for cider and song, it had roots in a deeper feeling of reverence and gratitude. But those humbler than men have the same feeling. In the pastures I often find the apple trees literally brooding seedling cedars which seem to flock beneath the outstretched and low-hanging boughs as chickens huddle beneath the mother hen for protection and warmth. Where tender nurslings of this sort are scattered wide in other portions of the pastures to find them grouped here by the score means that some selective thought has brought it all about. I cannot, of course, say that the seedlings consciously choose. Nevertheless, somehow, that spirit of protecting love of which I am, myself, definitely conscious when I come near an apple tree has somehow drawn beneath it these plants of other fibre that need its shelter.
To more sentient beings we may accord a more conscious purpose, and that the wild apple tree is more beloved of bird and beast than any other proves that they, too, feel the brooding charm which radiates from it. Verily, a tree is known by its nests. It seems as if the apple tree took loving thought and prepared especially for certain varieties while welcoming all. The robin loves a solid foundation for the mud bottom and sides of his substantial home. On the level-growing apple tree limb he finds this, and the kindly tree throws out little curved, finger-like fruiting twigs from the sides of its big limbs that help anchor the structure against all winds. Farther up on the limb and near the slenderer tip these curved fruiting twigs multiply and suggest the very shape of his nest to the chipping sparrow who loves to twine tiny roots and grasses, and especially horsehair, among them till his own light, wee structure is as securely placed as the cement bungalow of the bigger bird. So, too, the tyrant flycatcher loves to build his larger nest, often interwoven with waste string till it looks as if he had tied it on. He seeks the very tip of the level limb and the blunt, sturdy, spreading twigs invite his confidence as they do that of the chipping sparrow. This bold exposure of eggs and nestlings invites thieving jays and murderous crows, hawks and owls, but the king-bird's dinner flies by while he waits, and he does police duty while he watches for it. He is rightly named and no marauder dares approach while he sits dominant on the topmost bough. He is guardian thus of his less belligerent neighbors.
The oriole, trained in tropic woodlands to avoid climbers, instinctively finds the pendulous tips of slender elm boughs the best place for his nest, yet often in apple-blossom time he becomes so enamored of them that the white snow of their falling petals leaves him building on the twigs from which they scatter. In July the incessant, cry-baby twittering of the young orioles is thus as common a sound of the orchard and pasture as it is of the elm-shaded street. Other apple tree nest-hangers are the vireos, yellow throated, red-eyed and white-eyed, all of whom love to build on the low-swinging tips of the benedictory limbs. It seems to me that no other tree attracts such a variety of beautiful birds out of what one might think to be their usual environment. Of these I may cite the scarlet tanager and the rose-breasted grosbeak, both rather shy woodland dwellers, the tanager the friend of the tall timber, the grosbeak partial to sprout land and second growth, but both often found building their nests on the inviting boughs of apple trees not far from their favorite haunts.
It seems, too, as if the tree made especial preparation for the housing of other less shy folk. I know no other tree so nobly hollow-hearted. At little excuse, if it be not good will toward woodpeckers, bluebirds and their like, the mahogany-like dense heart-wood rots, leaving hollow passages in the trunk and larger limbs, and often in the smaller ones, too. Here are homes for all who seek complete seclusion from storms and enemies. The little screech owl loves these hollows more than those of any other tree, and sings his little quavering night song from the dusky tops, while his mate and her eggs are safely hidden in the blackness of the hollow below. The downy woodpecker bores his nest hole in the softened heart-wood of upright limbs and pays for his lodging by devouring all grubs and borers that otherwise might make his house fall too soon. The bluebird finds his dwelling ready made, lower down, often in a horizontal limb, having neither strength nor inclination to bore for himself. The flicker, too, loves the apple tree and bores his own hole in upright limbs, as does the downy woodpecker, often with much noise and obtrusion of vigorous chips.
Nor need the list stop here. The red squirrel and the gray, the bat, the field mouse and the white-footed mouse all feel this welcoming charm, this endearing hospitality of the wild apple tree, whether born wild or grown wild through neglect, and go to it for protection, for food, for a home, or just because, like man, they love it and feel sweetened and heartened in its presence.
Soon now the snow of falling petals will whiten the ground beneath all wild apple trees, carrying an inexpressible purity and fragrance to the rich wild earth beneath. Whither these melt it is hard to say. They whiten the ground for a few brief hours and are gone. I can fancy the wee sprites of earth in whatever form they happen to dwell at the moment, beetle or bumblebee, eft or elve, gathering these eagerly by scent and by sight, to store them away below ground for slow transmutations of their own. If wrapped in bed-clothing like this it is no miracle that rough grubs should come forth gauzy winged and beautiful insects that flit by and delight the eye of the naturalist. If fed upon these it is no wonder that summer wild flowers of the deep woods can show us delicate tints and woo us with dainty perfumes, the very memory of which is happiness for long after. Thus the tree makes kindly messengers of even the rough winds of March that sometimes charge back upon us for a day, obliging them to carry the very essence of the gentle good will and fondness of the spring farther than it might otherwise reach and finally bidding them faint and die for very love of the perfume and beauty they bear. Thus the wild apple tree, still the brooding mother of all woodland things, sends fragrant love and kindness questing far through the rougher woodland till its gentle spirit seems to imbue all things. In all the pastures there is none like it.