This old apple tree has seen better days, but none better than this, if one takes into consideration its defiant struggle to stay alive, and much, much more. I call it heroic, glorious, the way it stands there still, among the rocks and the tall grass just beyond the far side of the garden.
Its wonderful abundance of blossoms suddenly awakened after a long cold and wet early spring season virtually cries out, “look at me, world, I’m still here, I’m still alive; and not only that, I’m beautiful.”
All those young wild apple trees in the regenerating fields of Ontario Parks’ Hope Bay Nature Reserve, and along the nearby roadside of Cathedral Drive, Hope Ness, may be turning their spirits toward the old tree in worshipful admiration. Nothing would surprise me on this day, with the warm, nurturing sun finally shining down, bringing the blossoms, and all manner of other living things to life.
I count myself among them, and feel a particular bond with that old apple tree; but more than as a metaphor for a human life able to carry on despite the onset of old age. Rather, I fancy the tree and I are kindred beings in body and spirit: growing old or older, but still connected to the earth in a life-giving way. It’s like the tree is my older brother or sister, father or mother, or both. Finally, I settle on calling him, “Old Man Apple Tree.”
I walk over to him in the morning, stand in the midst of the wonderful profusion of pink-tinged, white blossoms. Its many gnarly old branches invite me in to touch the heart-trunk. And I think I will site there for a time and quietly, happily, accept whatever wisdom the old tree might like to give me.
And a moment of precious, restful peace; that too, of course. We don’t sit often enough on the ground under trees like this, under the shelter of low-hanging branches adorned with petals, with hundreds if not thousands of bees and other pollinators going about their living work, the only sound.
I imagine this tree was planted many years ago, making it possibly as old as this Hope Ness homestead itself, first settled in 1885 by the Heath family, according to the original Crown patent. If that’s true, then they picked a good location for the planting of their first apple tree: on somewhat higher ground, just enough that it drains well. They had likely soon become aware of the tendency of the lower ground a little to the south to flood in early spring.
The amount of work that went into making a home here defies imagination: digging wells, building a barn from hand-hewn beams with the help of many strong arms, and hearts, and, yes, clearing the land. Many hearts were broken, and backs. And who knows how many unmarked graves of infant children were buried under the protective arms of butternut trees?
All that started barely just 125 years ago, not much time at all really when put against others who lived here many thousands of years before them. But still, their being here is also worthy of remembrance
A hay field that winds a kilometre through the tree-covered rocky ridges on either side is now part of the provincial nature reserve beyond the long story of the altered, mid-1970s property line. The first stage of back-to-nature “regeneration,” is well underway with the growth of wild apple trees, ash, and thorny trees. A thousand years or more from now, a forest of tall, majestic pines may have returned. But, still, I remember going back there to help Wilma Butchart and her son Cliff bring in the hay almost 40 years ago. Those days are gone now. But some things will remain, I hope, like the still good-running Massey-Ferguson 65 tractor they used then and I use today; and the same old hay wagon, though for a different purpose. And above all the memory of an extraordinary woman and her gentle-man son. They too loved Hope Ness, as do I. And we are not alone.
And so, I give thanks to Old Man Apple Tree for being there, and for showing so joyfully what is still possible.