|I cannot claim that I have that much of a green thumb. My sister did, starting with one African Violet plant, and growing hundreds, which were sold at the synagogue's bazaar to raise money to help pay off the new building. And my mother, who grew up on Central Park West, developed a passion for growing things edible. My sister and I worked with her, and we were the first in our suburban neighborhood to demonstrate in the 1950s how much one could grow - berries of many kinds, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, lettuce, radishes, juicily sweet tomatoes, corn . . . . and figs! In Larchmont, NY, of all places. Each fall our Italian gardener Pete would carefully dig up the fig tree, wrap the the thing in burlap and bury it - to be revived from its hibernation come early March. That tree gave us fruit for almost ten years, until Pete passed on - somehow the rest of us lacked his unique touch.
There was too much for us to consume by ourselves, and my mother was not into canning. She tried it once. We did make a few pies, and one batch of homemade jam. The rest? My sister and I would go around the neighborhood. I honestly do not recall if we sold it at a nominal cost or merely gave it way. After a few years other neighbors began to grow their own, with the woman across the street having a remarkable touch with tomatoes.
We started when the year I turned 4, the second summer after we had moved into the house. For five years we were very involved, but then my sister and I began spending 8 weeks each summer at Interlochen, at National Music Camp. Without our help my mother cut back on how much she grew, because by then she had returned to her law practice in the city. And by the time I wsas 14 she was an Assistant Attorney General, often traveling to Albany, and without our help during those 8 weeks, the garden became much less a place of bounty.
From when we left that house after my mother's death when I was 17 until 3 decades later when Leaves on the Current and I moved into this house, I was never again living in a place where any food was grown on the property. I occasionally spent time at places that did, monasteries in Michigan, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Greece, and those stays reminded me of how incredible truly fresh and natural produce could taste. That memory was enhanced by our recently departed friend, who gave us so much while asking so little. The tree's presence was sufficient to encourage me to visit one or more of the multiple farmer's markets here in Arlington to experience some of that taste.
In the best years, the Stayman apple tree provided too much bounty for us to consume. I no longer bake pies. And 7 dozen or more apples is simply too much, even using the old refrigerator in the basement for cold storage. We would often given some away, and it was not unknown for county workers to find complaints filed against them by one elderly neighbor who observed them reaching over the fence from the sidewalk and treating themselves to a fresh apple or three.
Yesterday I did not have sufficient time to mourn the loss of my dear friend. I had to cut enough to clear the driveway immediately and go to the Station. When I came back I cut up all except a section of trunk - for that I will need a power saw. Last year it was clear he was dying - for the first time we got no apples, the few pitiful attempts being stolen by the neighborhood squirrels while they were still green. It was a hard summer, and it was harder to sustain him.
Still, we thought we were going to have to cut him down more than a decade ago, and somehow with water, with feeding, he found enough to keep producing, far longer than I suppose any of us had expected. He had a full life, for which we will remain grateful.
I am glad we let him pass at his own pace, even with the devastating impact of finding him yesterday across the driveway. I briefly considered trying to use a branch still alive at the time of the fall as the basis of restoring some aspect of him to life, but as I note, I really do not have a green thumb - it is at my limit to keep the weeds from choking the roses and can cut the grass back once a week. With my allergies and hay fever, even living on Benadryl, even had I the skill I lack the health to put in the required effort. I truly admire those who have it.
I decided to write this in part because I read a column by Nicholas Kristof entitled Lettuce From the Garden, With Worms. Kristof grew up on a farm in Oregon. He writes of having to pick the worms out of the produce they picked before they ate it. He admires the wide range of food in our supermarkets, something that Almost overwhelmed him with its bounty when he returned from working in China. He wrote that column in large part because he had seen "Food, Inc." and it had had a major impact upon him.
I thought of writing about Kristof's column, particularly when I read these two paragraphs in the middle:
Over the years, though, I've become nostalgic for an occasional bug in my salad, for an apple that feels as if it were designed by God rather than by a committee. More broadly, it has become clear that the same factors that impelled me toward factory-produced meat and vegetables - cheap, predictable food - also resulted in a profoundly unhealthy American diet.
I've often criticized America's health care system, and I fervently hope that we're going to see a public insurance option this year. But one reason for our health problems is our industrialized agriculture system, and that should be under scrutiny as well.
My recently departed apple tree was my one reminder that our food did not have to be purely industrialized. And I am aware that there are other ways. On my birthday, at my request, my wife took me to Joel's Salatin's Polyface Farms, that night we ate in a restaurant that served his meat, we brought home some of his product (I finally finished the wonderful eggs yesterday, and will have some Italian sausage today). On May 26, I wrote about his farm and food in If you care about your food - Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm, and more.
Let me offer a couple of more quotes from Kristof's piece that caught my attention.
"The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000," Michael Pollan, the food writer, declares in the film.
Huge confinement operations for livestock and poultry produce very cheap meat and eggs. But at what cost?
We even inflict unhealthy food on children in the school lunch program, and one in three Americans born after 2000 is expected to develop diabetes.
Kristof caught my attention. His column is worth reading. So I mention it.
Of greater importance to me is to recognize not only the loss we have now suffered, but to do more than mourn, to remember the great wealth we got from our now departed friend.
That spot in the yard looks empty, almost bereft. When I finish saying goodbye, and the last remnants are removed, I will have to decide what to do with the space. We may well not ground down the stump, perhaps in the hope that our friend will not have completely departed, that perhaps a shoot may yet arise therefrom.
I will not plant another apple tree nearby. That would seem to dishonor his memory. But I will plant a fruit tree of some sort, remembering the honor with which my Jewish heritage blesses fruit trees:
"When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only the trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced." -- Deuteronomy 20:19-20
Goodbye, dear friend. You may have left us at your own initiative, with perhaps some help from the natural elements. You will never be forgotten.