INTO THE PLOT
All winter the garden was like a closed-up resort, rooms echoing and vacant, white fabric draped over the furnishings. Now the sheets have been yanked off—the snow melted that fast—and already the regulars are coming back.
The crows arrive first. They come as a couple, though they don’t stick together. One pokes along the edge of the woods, nosing in the verge, while the other struts across the grass like a maître d’ inspecting the premises. Maybe they take turns, one strutting, one checking out the woods for nesting sites: I don’t pretend to be able to tell them apart. Both are big as ravens, and glossy, their beaks held haughtily in the air.
The vultures aren’t far behind. They skim the canopy, circling our yard, sniffing for the bodies of winter-killed rodents uncovered by the shrinking snow. The bare-skulled birds often land in the trees at the rim of the woods, but never close to the house. “We aren’t that old yet,” my Beloved declares.
Then suddenly, the rest are here. Red-winged blackbirds from the field across the road swarm the feeder on icy mornings and on those days when March sends a sleeting white reminder that winter’s not over yet. Flickers bob under the apple trees, pecking for crumbs in the grass. The goldfinches begin a slow striptease, throwing off their dowdy winter duds for summer bling. But it’s the Canada geese we wait for, the ones that spell spring with lines in the sky. They flock by the thousands to the Farmer’s cornfield across the way, exhausted from their journey north across the lake. All night they honk and chatter as if they can’t wait until morning to share stories of their travels.
For days, sometimes weeks, the geese are the soundtrack to my garden cleanup, a discordant, percussive jazz that goes on into dusk, with themes that recur, cadences that rise and fall as if there might be an intent to it after all. In the foreground, the chickadees and song sparrows, finches and blue jays and cardinals slip into their courting songs, and before long, the phoebe is back, screaming, “Phoebe! Phoebe!” and the wrens are whistling their sweet melodies and the catbird is imitating everybody, even the scrape of the saw as my Beloved prunes the apple trees. Chipmunks scoot along the stone wall, scooping up the dangling seed heads before I cut down last year’s stems and bury them in the compost. Squirrels chase one another in a mating marathon under the drooping dogwood and up the ornamental cherry, leaping to the locust, then to the sugarplum trees, racing pell-mell into lust.
It’s a party out there and I’m not invited. No one is. We’re all crashers on this first day of spring. I lather my wintersoftened hands with Bag Balm, pull on my rose-covered shirt and my new green garden gloves, and step out to join the rave.
Standing with my back to the old split-rail fence that defines the western edge of our property, I can make out four rows of apple trees—not the deliberately stunted specimens that have taken over modern orchards, but big old apples, with trunks too thick to embrace. The limbs start low and spread generously, inviting a shinny up to sit splay-legged over a branch, gazing down on the blossoms and birds. Trees as open-hearted and sheltering as great-aunts.
It was spring when we moved to The Leaf, a parcel of forest and meadow along a stretch of country road in eastern Ontario where squat stone houses declare a fiercely humble intention to stay. We knew no one here—that was part of the appeal. The snow was just retreating from around the stumps of the trees felled by the big ice storm two years earlier. Half a dozen of the old apple trees were cleaved down their centres, branches torn off by the weight of water, exposing heartwood the colour of wounded flesh.
We had a vision of sinking our teeth into midwinter apples, crisp from the cellar. Of toasting each other with cider pressed from culls raked off the grass. And so the day after a mighty flock of Bohemian waxwings stripped the last of the thawing, fermenting fruit from the limbs, we set about restoring what remained of the orchard.
My Beloved and I assembled ladders, chainsaws, pruning shears of various sizes and enlisted the help of our friends, the Carpenter and the Garden Guru, who had done this before.
“A bird should be able to fly freely through the tree when we’re done,” they said.
We started with the apple tree closest to the house, the one I could see from the kitchen window. The Garden Guru walked around it slowly, eyeing it like a piece of marble she planned to chisel. My Beloved and the Carpenter positioned the ladders and revved the chainsaws.
“That one,” she said, and the Carpenter squinted to find an outside bud, then trimmed the limb close, so the next branch would grow outward instead of toward the trunk.
Bring the height down, open the centre to the light, balance the spread of limbs, she recited as she circled the tree. Before she called out each cut, I tried to guess which branch she’d choose, and why. Wrong. Wrong. And then, suddenly, I got it right.
We did four trees that afternoon, carrying armloads of pruned branches into the house, where they burst into blossom by the fireplace, a foretaste of true spring. My Beloved and I pruned three more trees on our own, uncertain in our cuts, anxious not to remove more than the 25 percent per year the trees could withstand without going into an arboreal version of cardiac arrest.
It wasn’t until early May that we realized the extent of the original orchard at The Leaf. Only sixteen trees remained, but if we followed one burst of white bloom to the next, as if in a game of connect-the-dots, we could see where rows of apples had once run the entire width of the property, interrupted only by the house. The row closest to the road bore fruit early in August; the third produced later that month. The fourth, all but lost in the fringe of sumac and saplings at the edge of the woods, were Russets, we could tell by the brown mottled skin. The trees in the second row, the ones I could see from the kitchen, produced apples that we swore were McIntosh.
And they were. One summer afternoon in our third year at The Leaf, an elderly couple stopped their car at our mailbox. There’s little traffic on this road except for the school bus, the milk truck, the snow plow, and an occasional commuter or lost tourist. We weren’t used to company.
“I’m Apple Annie,” the woman said. She was born in our house, seventy years before. Her father planted the orchard in 1923, ninety trees set in four neat rows.
“Jonathan, McIntosh, Scarlet Pippin, Russet,” she said, naming the rows. Her parents stored the apples in barrels and shipped them off to local hotels and grocery stores. As a girl, she sat by the road and sold them to passersby. “That’s how I got my nickname,” she laughed. When she grew up, she went to university to become a teacher, then lived at home, riding her pony through the woods to a one-room schoolhouse up on Washburn Road.
I ran to the stone wall to retrieve a horseshoe my Beloved had unearthed as he dug another garden, and handed it to her.
“In the fall,” she said, turning the shoe upright to hold in the luck, “the whole place smelled of apples.”
It’s the same in the summer, when the young, green fruit give off a spicy scent that fills the West Yard. Sometimes, my Beloved and I position a small table under an arching apple branch and linger there after our lunch, books in hand.
Once, the Farmer who works all the land that we can see from The Leaf stopped his tractor beyond the hedge that separates our yard from the road. The afternoon was wearing on, the sun already sliding down the sky, and we were still sitting with our books, stirring briefly whenever the hay wagons passed, feeling vaguely guilty in our indolence. I couldn’t help but recall what our nearest neighbours, the Rosarian and the Humanist, had told us—that the Farmer had once interrupted their long afternoon of reading to climb down off his tractor and ask, “What are you doing anyway, sitting there all this time?”
Now the Farmer was striding through a break in our hedge. Small and wiry, he still works dawn to dusk beside his sons, though he is well over eighty. “Never tasted a drop of alcohol,” he said the day he stopped to welcome us to The Leaf. When we offered him a cup of tea, he added: “Never took a hot drink, neither.”
We could see his lips moving as he strode across the grass, and we expected the worst. Then we heard him, a clear, true tenor, Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me . . .
“I’ve been watching you all afternoon, and singing this song. I just wanted to thank you for that,” he said, beaming broadly. Then he turned and left.
Every March since, we pull out the chainsaw, the pole pruner, and the secateurs and give the old trees a trim. As I haul away the last armload of this year’s trimmings, a robin glides through the branches with outstretched wings. I think of Apple Annie and her father, who set out the tender scions; of our friends, who made the first cuts; of the Rosarian and the Humanist, and the Farmer who sang to us. We bought this place with notions of solitude, but already, there is a gathering on the lawn under the old apple tree, and I feel at home.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A New Leaf by Merilyn Simonds. Copyright © 2011 by Merilyn Simonds. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.