Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Autumn leaves and rotting apples

By Kew Gardens, from Flickr
While walking to work this morning, I passed under a ginkgo tree and waded through the distinctive bright yellow, fan shaped leaves that had fallen to the ground. They followed me, scattered about the sidewalk and road, for a block or two before they tapered off. As soon as I saw the unique leaves, I smiled and whispered, "Ginkgoes!" out loud. I sadly can't distinguish most trees from one another. I've tried many times, but the information just can't find a place to stick in my memory and the knowledge quickly fades away. Ginkgo trees, however, have managed to stay with me.

Before my parents divorced when I was eight, we all lived together in a huge, white Victorian house on three and half acres in Pennsylvania. My brother and I ran wild in the hilly yard, climbing every tree we could and breaking out in poison ivy on what seemed like a daily basis. The furry ropes of poison ivy that ran up and down many of the older trees did not do much to deter us from setting our feet on the bark and swinging ourselves up into the boughs. I cannot recount the majority of the tree species that were in my childhood yard, but I can tell you about three: the ginkgo, the Japanese maple, and the apple trees.

The ginkgo largely went unnoticed by me until autumn.We had a huge ginkgo tree that was unclimbable, due to its lack of low branches, that shaded part of the driveway close to the house. The color and the shape of its leaves made them stand out from all the other leaves that floated to the ground. They were not brightly colored or shiny like the other leaves. They were a matte pastel orange. You'd think that their comparative dullness would make them less noticeable, but the creamy orange color was always a nice change from the piles of showy leaves. I always felt compelled to pick up a leaf or two and finger the paper like texture, feeling the tiny raised veins, all running in the same direction. Ginkgoes are pretty robust and capable of thriving in areas of low air quality. Perhaps their quiet endurance is what attracts me to them so much.

By autan, from Flickr
The Japanese maple was in our front yard, sitting on the crest of a hill, right next to the road, and very close to our front porch. It was an excellent climbing tree because of its smooth bark and many low, well spaced branches. The leaves were always bright red, not just in the fall, and, for that, I liked its fiery independence. It was my go to climbing tree because of its close proximity to the house and because it had one thick branch that jutted out to the side that was perfect to swing on. The ground below was on a decline due to the hill, so when I was young, I could grab on the branch, arms stretched out, and let myself hang with my feet dangling as I swung back and forth. I remember the bark grew darker and smoother on that branch from my grubby, kid hands after a spring and summer of swinging back and forth.

Shortly before my parents separated, my mom began working part time, which left my brother and me alone after school for a few hours. One autumn afternoon, I ran out to the front yard with my brother after throwing our backpacks down inside and headed for the Japanese maple. I was dolled up in a dress and had on dress shoes. My brother stopped me and asked me if I should change first before climbing the tree. I looked down at my outfit, knowing that he was right, but shrugged my shoulders and said that I'd be fine. My recklessness made me bold and I swung myself up into the tree like an expert, gripping the well known branches and placing my feet into the joints that were formed where two branches met. The bottom of my shoes were slick and didn't have much traction. High up in the boughs, my footing slipped and as gravity pulled me down, I blacked out. I woke up, face up on the grass, with my brother, white as a sheet, kneeling over me. I have no idea how long I was out for, but as far as I can remember, I was largely bruise free. I stood up, all in one piece, and my brother and I unconsciously took the sibling silence oath and never spoke of the incident to ourselves or to our parents. The sheer terror of the accident kept us mum. Thinking about the amount of luck involved in me being able to walk away from that incident makes my brain hurt. I could have fallen into the street and gotten hit by a car, I could have broken my neck and been paralyzed, I could have, I could have...

By canong2fan, from Flickr
Farther away from the house, higher up on the hill, was a row of apple trees. Most years, we didn't do anything with the apples. We just let them fall to the ground and be eaten by the many deer that roamed through our yard. Walking around these trees in the fall was like walking through a mine field. Rotting apples were incredibly slippery if stepped on and piles of little deer turds were littered throughout. One year, my dad did gather up boxes and boxes of the apples and made applesauce with them. I have no idea what kind of apples they were, but it was the tangiest, most mouth watering applesauce I've ever had. After being raised on jarred, store bought applesauce, I had no idea that apples could taste that way.

In the beginning of October, my best friend, Lynn, and I went apple picking in Charlottesville. The plan was to pick enough to make an apple pie and some applesauce. After partaking in apple cider and apple cider doughnuts, we entered the orchard and wandered down a pathway between two rows of apple trees. My nose perked up and picked up the familiar scents of the orchard. Lynn noticed the perplexed look on my face and she knew exactly what I was trying to place. "It smells just like at my old house. All the rotting apples in the fall smelled exactly how it smells here." She recognized the smell as well, having traipsed across my yard with me on a number of occasions. I had forgotten that pervasive sweet, earthy smell over the years, but in a matter of seconds, I had returned to my childhood, skipping and jumping over brown, mushy, wrinkly apples, on my way to the next tree.

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