Sitting in traffic a couple of weeks ago on Route 110 in Chelmsford, Massachusetts I glanced over at an old apple tree blossoming in the woods. The woods have grown up around it, shading the tree, but it was still throwing out blossoms to be pollinated for fruit. The average apple tree lives about as long as a lucky human – about 100 years. If your typical farmer in 1920 is 30 years old when they plant the tree it’s likely to outlive them, and maybe their children too. Like people, an apple tree reaches towards immortality by reproducing, and this tree was working hard to ensure that.
New England is not an easy place to be a farmer, or to maintain orchards. Short, fickle growing seasons, harsh winters and encroaching development makes farming a challenging livelihood. Farms run out of steam as children choose a different career path, farmers near retirement and the lure of the real estate payday becomes increasingly attractive. How many farms and apple orchards have been swallowed up by urban sprawl? More than I’d care to think about.
The tree I saw was swallowed up by woodland instead. Farms that aren’t worked return to the woods eventually. Native trees compete for light and strive to outgrow each other. An old apple tree doesn’t stand much of a chance over time when the trees come back. The woods of New England have many such apple trees, which like stone walls and old cellar holes live well past the farmers who introduced them to this place. But unlike stones an apple tree is a living, breathing witness to the history of this plot of land. Eventually the woods will shade the tree so much that it dies and returns to the earth. But not yet. Perhaps the apples will reach the ground, and the seeds will root another tree to replace its parent. The odds are stacked against it though. And yet, this spring the white blossoms signal hope for future generations.