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Monday, January 23, 2012

Day 4 Outdoors: By the Wild Apple Trees

Sunday, January 22, 4-5 p.m.

Clear, blue sky and bright sunshine, temperatures up from recent single digits to somewhere around the freezing point. Up Novotny Road from M-22, where the road flattens out after the steep hill, and beyond the driveway into the old Sedlacek place, there is a winding two-track. Along it grow a few old wild apple trees.

A remnant fence post, bare of boards or wire, stands near the main road, casting its shadow across the snow-covered two-track. (Another fence post is almost hidden by overgrown apple trees on the other side of the track.) Tawny grass stems cluster around the fence post. Their leaves twist gracefully like ribbons. Some rise straight  from the snow with no preamble, while others have reflected enough sun to create small pockets, little shadowed craters, in the snow around them, as do trees in the woods at the end of winter, when snow is still on the ground but begins to retreat from the bases of individual warming trunks.

Everything casts a shadow today, from the largest tree to the smallest bird track. Any open stretch of snow looks like wave-contoured sand beneath the water at the edge of Lake Michigan, and so the snow casts shadows on itself along the contour lines made by the wind as, swirled into wave patterns, the frozen ridges contrasting with the expanse of crystals stretching to the next miniscule ridge.

The apple trees provide startling color in an otherwise stark landscape. Never pruned, they are a tangle of disordered limbs and branches. The oldest trunks have died. Their bark long shed, they look similar in their bare woodiness to the fence posts nearby, except that suckers have grown up around the old trunks to make new trees.

These are late season apples. In November some were yellow, some red, the best-tasting with a striped skin and white, very white but pink-tinged flesh. Now, in January, much of the fruit remains on the trees but, frozen many times already, it has changed color dramatically. Not yet shriveled, the glossy skin is somewhere between the bright color of its ripeness and the resigned brown of old oak leaves. These soft, old apples glow in the late afternoon sun. Some of them weep juicy tears that catch the sunlight. Most have given up firm roundness for soft, gently dented, still fleshy but now lumpy, almost apologetic shapes.

The track lies lower than the orchard blocks that rise above it to the north and south. It winds secretively eastward, ever downhill as it goes. Perhaps there was always a gully here, or perhaps it was carved by decades of runoff. Besides the apple trees and grasses, near the road there is red twig dogwood, and there are big thistles. In the background are dark stands of conifers.

As the winter sun nears the horizon, the light takes on a warmer and warmer color, while the air grows correspondingly colder. To the senses, it is a paradoxical effect, bone-chilling wind and glowing light increasing together.


Gerry said...

I had never thought of wind over snow making the same effects as water over sand, but of course it would. I know that that time of day when the warm light fills the sky just as the evening wind begins to chill. Time to go indoors.

This is a good place to hang out.

Dawn said...

I wonder about the people that planted the apple trees so many years ago and if the deer munch on the apples now and whether anyone has truly appreciated this space in many years until you happened along. I think the apple trees would be pleased to be described with such thoughtfulness.

P. J. Grath said...

I love having you come to hang out here, Gerry. Dawn, I'm not sure (how would we ever know) the apple trees were intentionally planted. I sent a bag home with a friend whose husband grows cherries, apples, and pears commercially, and he thought they were "just" wild apples, not any recognizable variety. Thank you for the thought that the trees appreciate attention. It is my pleasure and extreme good fortune to spend time in these small, easily overlooked corners so rich in life.

Helen said...


P. J. Grath said...

Helen, it is kind of you not to observe that my being so uncomfortably cold affected my patience. The last sketch is more a scribble than a drawing. But there will be more hours in future, and I will dress more warmly.