Wassailing the Apple Orchard

“Wet leaves and rotting apples — the smell of the orchard in fall.”

Grandma's Apple Tree
Climbing trees in the 70’s in Orchard Lake, Michigan.

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.

Apple Tree
The focal point of the backyard … a lovely heritage apple tree.

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.

Apple Blossoms
The old apple tree blossoms around May 1.

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.)

Little Red Apples
The smaller tree produces apples that are typically ready in late September-early October.

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.

Iowa Girl

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.

Iowa Backyard
That’s me, second from the right, holding the hand of my fabulously bold friend, Wanda.

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.