3 January 2001
Dark red fruit decorates my two apple trees like Christmas ornaments. Last month a windstorm blew the crisp brown leaves away, leaving only the apples on glistening black branches. It is unusual to have apples left on the trees in January -- a feast for the birds. Soon it will be time to prune.
It was the biggest apple season we've had in the sixteen falls we've lived in this house. A big season everywhere in the Northwest, I guess -- apples are cheap this year. It's been a challenge to keep up with ours, picking up a bucketful of windfalls every other day. We used about a tenth of them. Our compost and the garden beds are full of rotten apples.
The trees are probably as old as our house, ninety years or so. They are a variety called Tompkins County Kings, developed in upstate New York. The fruit is large, and tart, good for applesauce. I put up applesauce and apple butter till I had no place left to put it. I made pie all fall. The apples don't hold their shape; it is applesauce pie, but the tastiest I know.
I purely love to make pie. When I'm up to my arms in flour I feel the weight of all my pioneer foremothers in the heft of the rolling pin. I used to make bread each week, when I was newly a wife and baking bread was a metaphor for all the domestic virtues. Bread dough takes hard kneading; you must toughen the gluten in the flour by repeated assaults. But pie dough takes gentle handling, kneaded with a lover's care just to the point where the dough will cling together, with no fraying of the edges as it's rolled out. My fingertips know when the dough is just right, not a conscious thought but a body memory.
This year we have eaten pie until we are almost tired of it, hard though it is to believe. And now the apples that are left on the trees are food for the birds.
The thrushes are the first to peck at them. Big birds, related to robins, are these pacific varied thrushes. They sit on a branch above the apple and peck down at the top of it, so that from below the apple looks as whole and wholesome as ever. If you pick it, though, you find that little basins have been pecked in the top, and, if it has been raining (as it sometimes does in Portland), the little basins have collected water. This year the apples have lasted so long, though, that the birds have eaten the whole top half of some of them.
Starlings come; I do not care for them. One morning when a whole flock of starlings was gorging itself, I went out waving and shouting, and shooed them away. They flew up into the bigleaf maple, and sat waiting for me to go back in, but when I didn't they gave up and flew off to their next trattoria.
Robins come, sometimes. Here in Portland they stay all winter. The occasional jay drops by. And a flicker has taken a liking to the apples this year -- a huge bird with very distinct and striking markings, all white and black polka-dotted with a brilliant red gash at the throat. This year the apples have attracted smaller fry as well. I've seen sparrows , finches and juncos taking their turn.
The week before Christmas I was up to my neck in a project of great intensity. On Sunday afternoon I decided I must have a break; I would make pie. I brought in a five-gallon bucket of apples, washed them, and set to peeling and coring them. It is a satisfying kind of work after days of wrestling with a text. Your mind can roam while your fingers are busy. Each apple is a mystery to delve into. You do not know until you cut it open what you will find inside. I quarter several apples at a time with my big butcher knife; inside some are white just shading into green, some are bruised and brown, some are the homes of little bugs. Some must be discarded, others I will work with. One in ten has the translucent mottled flesh that is sweet instead of tart, a sugar apple.
My hands have their favorite paring knife, and they know their work. Thin rashers of apple peel fall into the compost bucket with the measured cadence of long experience. Only the sweet white flesh is left, each quarter reduced to its essential useable part.
I made three pies, but there were more apples yet. Once the pies were in the oven, and the inevitable little cinnamon rolls had been made from the leftover dough, I went on cutting and peeling and coring until the bucket was empty. I put the extra apple quarters into plastic bags. The freezer was already full of bags of apples, so I put these latest in the refrigerator. I'll make more applesauce, I thought. Sometime before we leave for Christmas, I'll use them.
But I did not. Refreshed, I sank back into the blinkered world of the intense project, and when next I looked up it was time to head for the airport. When we got back New Years' eve, the apples in the refrigerator were no good anymore.
Now, the apples that go into the compost I regard with complacency. Sure, a lot of apples get thrown away that I might have used, but, hey, life's too short to worry about all the things you might have done. But the corruption of these choice morsels, on the other hand, was a palpable reminder of the inexorable march of time, of my own mortality and fallibility. I grieved for them.
Well, they're only apples, after all, and what can't be cured must be endured. "Colin," I said to my sixteen-year-old son, "please take these out and dump them on the garden." The worms will thrive. Next summer I'll grow pumpkins and tomatoes and peas, and they will be sweet and rich. And what I don't use will make a feast for the birds.