THE SECOND SPRING in our new home, the tree by the mailbox bursts into white blossoms. Last year, the blooms snapped off under a hard late frost. But now I hope for apples. The flowers give way to small green spheres, but they never grow any larger than a thumbprint.
When they begin to blush pink, my father, up the mountain for a visit, plucks one off the tree and tastes it. “Cherries,” he says.
We feel foolish, then delighted. The ravens are pleased, too. I watch one morning as they pluck ripened cherries from their stems, bring them to the birdbath and wash them in rainwater, then swallow them down, stones and all. Their drab black feathers and the bright red fruit make a strange contrast: like funeral mourners with ruby rings. Even the raven with the crippled leg eats her fill.
For a day, our tree is a source of wonder. The neighbors say they’ve never seen fruit on it before: not once in all the years or decades they’ve lived in this corner of woodland in Arizona’s high country. My husband, Chris, and I are newcomers, so we take their word for it.
We bought this house, our first, for its garden—though at seven thousand feet in elevation, the growing season is not only short, but also short-tempered. Strings of days arrive bright with sun, like guests at a masquerade, until a sudden cold front blows away the masks and finery. The garden store posts a sign: LAST FROST DATE JUNE 13. We ignore the warning and plant tomatoes before we should, and have to drape them in spare bedsheets at night.
A gate in our backyard, off kilter on its hinges, leads into the national forest by way of a short, hidden tunnel between the neighbors’ back fences. Violets creep in from one side and bits of compost from the other. Beyond, as far as you care to walk, ponderosa pines, that tree of many names: blackjack, yellowbelly, pumpkin. Nobody can agree on the color because the color does change as the slender dark saplings mature into evergreen giants. It’s not a wild place, our forest—not if you think of “wild” as “free from human presence.” It’s riddled with social trails and U.S. Forest Service roads. But sometimes we spot elk in the evenings, thirty or forty at a time, their coats gleaming in the failing light.
I think of it as a ghost forest, haunted by its future. Some of the trees are marked with orange paint: those are the lucky ones. They’ll be left standing, while the unmarked trees will be cut down, either hauled away for lumber or burned as slash—part of a million-acre forest restoration project to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. In the ’80s and ’90s, an average wildfire in the U.S. burned about forty acres. Now that number is more than a hundred.
I’m to blame, in part, for buying a home in the woods. So is the U.S. Forest Service’s old policy of fire suppression, which allowed the pines to grow unnaturally thick. But now, too, it’s the fault of longer summers and snowless springs. The price we pay for cherries.
No late frost comes. By the end of June, 2.5 million acres have burned nationwide, and vast tracts of our forest are closed to the public, the trailheads roped off with yellow caution tape. The county bans campfires, charcoal grills, and smoking outdoors. By the end of July, we have picked every cherry and 5 million acres have burned. By the end of August, 7 million. I keep an orange doorknob tag in my desk drawer: ALL OCCUPANTS HAVE EVACUATED. I make a list of things to take and tape it to the top of a secondhand fireproof safe: photo albums, medication, the cat, my grandmother’s single string of pearls, which I wore on my wedding day.
In September, the neighborhood explodes into apples. Gleaners show up with long-handled apple pickers and steal fruit from over the fences. Our ninety-four-year-old neighbor invites us to take as much as we want from his trees. Their boughs sink so close to the ground, we don’t need to bring a ladder. Chris shows me how the dull maroon skin shines to vivid, fairy-tale-poison red.
I think this portends no good: all this sweetness, hiding a spell of sleep. But I eat the apples anyway. So much abundance, unlooked for: surely it’s a gift. After all, we’re not in a fairy tale.
We freeze apples with cinnamon into the shape of pies, squash them into sauce and can them in old spaghetti jars, bake them into coffeecake. Boxes of apples appear on street corners with signs—FREE!—and finally, in desperation, we bring them to our tax accountant to feed to her rescue horses. They hang their heads out of their paddocks— bay, dun, gray, and pinto—and slobber on our fingers.
Snow arrives in early October, drab brown earth transfigured to glimmer ing white: Cinderella dressing for the ball. The tension breaks. We are giddy with relief. The Forest Service burns the slash piles near the freeway from last year’s thinning efforts. Bonfires blaze all night, striped by trees, and I imagine witches’ shadows dancing round. Ritual and sacrifice.
We eat the last of the cherries, frozen for this occasion, in a Thanksgiving pie. We give cans of applesauce to everyone we know.
Winter passes. More snow this time around—enough snow in February to trap us indoors for two days straight when the snowplows can’t keep up. April brings an out-of-season storm that stomps all over the garden with thunder and hail. Buds on our miracle cherry tree swell, white petals peeking through like petticoats beneath green skirts. I long for cherries. I hope for frost. O
An essay that speaks vividly to our condition in the Northern Rockies. You make your Ellen Meloy Fund fans proud, Mellissa!
Hi Melissa – Tony Jewett here from the Ellen Meloy Fund. This is wonderfully composed and so in line with our lives out here these days. It all rings true and deep. Marvelous the manner in which you’ve captured a full year of seasons through the lens of a backyard fruit — and in so few words. Thanks for writing it. Hope you are well.
A beautiful essay that reads like poetry.
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