“Wet leaves and rotting apples — the smell of the orchard in fall.”
That is how a local orchard owner described the aroma and fermentation of making old-fashioned apple cider.
I know exactly what she means. As a young girl, I used to climb the trees in my grandmother’s apple orchard. I know that familiar smell of wet leaves, fallen apples, and the crisp earthy air.
Last weekend for a lark, I went a-wassailing at a local cider maker, to learn more about growing apples, sample some cider, and for the simple pleasure of being outdoors in a fruit orchard on a sunny January day. Wassailing is a medieval custom to annually bless and drink to the orchard in winter, to encourage a good harvest in the coming season.
This ritual might come in handy. I now live in a hundred year old house in Victoria, Canada and have inherited a small orchard of two trees. The largest one is old and lovely and crooked and covered in moss, and propped up with a 4×4 board, but still produces a good late summer crop of soft, sweet apples. My urban farming neighbour says these are Gravenstein apples. I’ll take her word for it.
And I love this old tree. La Vielle Arbre des Pommes. I was married under this tree. In summer I sway in my grandmother’s hammock under this tree. My pup likes to lay at the base (her “post”) and survey the yard. The woodpeckers, chickadees, hummingbirds, juncos, sparrows, robins and flickers all enjoy this tree, too.
The second tree in my humble orchard is a younger, smaller, sturdier and giving tree that produces an astonishingly generous, early autumn crop of small, crisp, sweet and perfect dark red apples. I’d love to learn what variety they are. If you know, please tell me (and I’ll be happy to thank you with apples.)
I also have a pear tree, but that is another gardening story for another time.
For now, it is still winter and the trees are bare. Yesterday it was calm and sunny, so we gave them a light pruning, and sprayed them with dormant oil. It will still be a few months until they blossom; still a few more before their fruit slowly ripens over summer. In the meantime, there is nothing more to do except continue to love them, admire them, and wait for the bountiful harvest. Cheers.
Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.
“There are times when it is hard to believe in the future, when we are temporarily just not brave enough. When this happens, concentrate on the present. Cultivate “le petit bonheur” (the little happiness) until courage returns. Look forward to the beauty of the next moment, the next hour, the promise of a good meal, sleep, a book, a movie, the likelihood that tonight the stars will shine and tomorrow the sun will shine. Sink roots into the present until the strength grows to think about tomorrow.” – Ardis Whitman (American author)
Iowa is where my childhood memories begin. So even though I wasn’t born in Iowa, the paradox is that I was. When I was five years old in Iowa, my world was my family and one block around. It was here I found my first best friend, and learned how to be one. I learned that if you’re shy, it’s good to have a friend who is just a little bolder. And maybe you help them be just a little calmer. Iowa first put music and rhythm in my body. My father used to play his guitar after dinner, while my siblings and I would move and dance around the living room. Soon I became aware of patterns. I noticed the steady beat of those songs was like the steady thump of a basketball in our driveway, or the steady creak of metal chains as our swings went back and forth, back and forth. Iowa is where I first felt the range of my emotions. I felt compassion when my little sister had her tonsils out. I felt disappointment being chosen last in kindergarten to select a Christmas gift. (Adding salt to the wound, it was a giant pencil … a pencil!) I felt tenderness and affection for our sweet, elderly babysitter. And I felt afraid when my friend’s parents took me for a long drive away from home. I didn’t know why I was separated, and I cried for my mom.
But in Iowa, I also learned to take risks and knocks and be resilient. One time I hit the curb too hard, flew over my bicycle handlebars, and crashed into the pavement. Another time I slipped down the basement stairs and broke my collar bone. All the scars I have on my knees, I earned in Iowa. Iowa also put a gentleness in me. Iowa is where I first felt the warmth of the golden hour, watching summer shadows stretch long on the sidewalk. I learned that backyards full of dandelions turned into fields of wishes. That we should make love, not war. And that there were people walking on the moon, though you couldn’t see them. This is why you must always have dreams, to find just what is possible. For a long time I forgot about Iowa. But then one day I found a book that spoke to my heart, and it made me realize Iowa was still inside me. Mary Allen in the “Rooms of Heaven” wrote:
…Iowa has a safe, kindly, fresh-scrubbed feeling. The landscape consists of miles and miles of rolling, undulating green, a verdant patchwork of corn and soybeans, the horizon only broken every once in a while by a clump of farm buildings — a large white house, a sagging red barn, a windmill, a silo, a couple of sheds — and sometimes, out in the cornfields, by a pickup truck barreling along a narrow road in the distance, kicking up a cloud of white dust. Often on the horizon the air fades to a pale, hazy, bluish shade of pink, and above it the vault of the mild blue sky curves and rises. The view seems endlessly wide; it makes something expand inside your eyes or your mind.
This is true. This is what Iowa first did for me. It made my life expand.
First I repatriated some rocks and shells back to the sea, and then I sat on a log and quietly watched the world go by.
After a while I focused my attention to the sand beneath my feet. I started poking through rocks to see what beach treasures I might find. On one side of my log I placed interesting pebbles to admire. To the other side I placed pieces of broken plastic and garbage.
I’ve noticed over the years an increasing amount of garbage washing up on our shores. On this particular beach, many pieces of waste are small, sharp edged bits of hard plastic. I often worry about the safety of children with their curious hands and feet, or of puppies and their paws. I also think about the general impression this sight may have on visitors to my hometown, when they come to enjoy the seaside and find the tides have left the shoreline littered. Never mind the party garbage brought in and left behind by nighttime revelers.
Suddenly, I remembered I had a plastic bag in my pocket leftover from repatriating the shells. I started to fill the bag with plastic bits and other garbage. I cleaned up the space around my log on the beach. Of course, it was not enough to make a huge difference, but I left the beach in better condition than when I found it.
This is something I used to do naturally as a child — pick up litter from the sidewalk or park whenever I played outside. But ocean waste is one of those gigantic, complex problems that feels beyond one’s control. And somewhere along the way, in my long life’s journey through different busy phases of adulthood, I personally stopped picking up street litter. Most times I would just feel sad or disappointed in other people for not taking strides to the garbage can, and passing their responsibility along to someone else.
What happened to the little girl who used to accept that extra responsibility?
Now I am not normally one for making new year’s resolutions, but today I decided that I will always pack an extra bag in my pocket, so that whenever I come down to the shore, I can remove some of these small hazards from the beach. And leave it just a little bit cleaner.
If reading this inspires you to take up a similar practice, that would be wonderful. Our efforts would be shared and doubled! But I am really not trying to start a movement with this post, or look for any ‘that a girl’ praise. I am simply remembering the child I once was, and aspiring to live up to her example.
This is a personal decision and agreement between me and the beach.
What does it mean to live a life well lived?
I think about this often (especially as I get older).
I know it essentially includes being open and traveling a spectrum of human experiences. To me, a life well lived is a life of expansion.
This morning, I came across a lovely 4-minute video featuring Jim Whittaker, first American to scale Mount Everest. He shares some of his philosophy on risk-taking, and getting outside to learn about yourself:
“Nature is the best teacher in the world …. it is in the wild places, in the damp clean air of an ancient forest, on a heaving ocean in unpredictable wind, on a snowy summit at the top of the world, that I enter my own personal cathedral and know where I fit in the vastness of creation.”
I understand when he says it is “an unconscious spiritual journey to be in the natural world.” I have only ever felt a sense of awe and wonder while outside in nature’s cathedral. I remember the first time I saw the northern lights dancing in ribbons across a dark winter sky … the first time I saw a shooting star, or watched the luminous orange globe of the full moon, rising slowly over the sea … or felt the vastness of the universe while standing under a million bright and brilliant stars.
My own personal cathedral is the night sky. And in this place, witnessing something special, I have felt very small but also connected to something much larger than myself. I have been overjoyed, stilled, filled with gratitude, and somehow reassured of my place in this world. These experiences have been profoundly expansive.
I will continue to think about this, and build my own definition for a life well lived. In the meantime, if you would like a few moments of thoughtful inspiration, here is Jim Whittaker’s perspective.
For the longest time, I wasn’t here.
I have always loved to write. A long held dream of mine has been to write publicly and share personal essays, to uplift or inspire or maybe just offer a little levity. But for many reasons, I just haven’t been ready. A person can be so confident, decisive and even fearless in certain aspects of one’s life, but unsure for something so deeply personal. I am only human afterall. And in my uncertainty, the dream has been postponed. One day I will start a blog (when I come up with the right niche, the perfect name, a compelling first story). I just need more information, more advice, inspiration, and of course, much more time.
But the other day, as I was being my contemplative introverted self, quietly reading my Twitter news feed, a random tweet commanded my attention and held me spellbound.
It was philosopher Alan Watts. He looked me right in the eye, and spoke to me directly across time and space.
“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.”
I was stilled by his message.
Words have the power to do this. They can transcend time, travel through space, and arrive at the most exquisitely perfect time, kicking you right in the pants.
This was the kick in the pants I needed, coming from a wise old friend I never knew, who wasn’t afraid to tell the truth. Stop trying to find the perfect title, and the perfect words, to be shared publicly at the perfect time. Stop waiting to learn more about WordPress or copyright, or sorting out what picture you want to feature on the front page.
I don’t really know what I’m doing yet, but I took Alan’s advice to heart. Stop aspiring and start writing. I registered the first good name that came to me, and wrote this post tonight, with the first imperfect words that came to me. The rest will undoubtedly work itself out.
So, I am here now. I am finally here. And it feels right and good.
Perhaps one day, my words will speak directly to another person across time and space. And something really good will happen afterwards. But in this moment, if I haven’t saved anyone else, I have at least saved myself. The writer in me will not have to perish from the regret of dreams unfulfilled.
Sharing in this space was easier than I thought. Thank you, Mr. Watts.