I had forgotten we had apple trees on the farm. The kids just run past the orchard on the way to catch a frisbee or run through a sprinkler.
When my grandfather was alive, the trees were so laden that apples would fall all over the ground and rot. They weren’t the kind you get in grocery stores. Small and green and covered with sooty blotch, they were perfect in the pies and apple sauce that my grandmother would make. We could feed them to the cows, let the birds eat all the high ones, and still there were plenty for everyone.
It’s spring break and we have come to Ohio to see my parents. Only Mark, Luke, and Diana could come — Enrico, Sofia, and Virginia stayed home to work. The speakers in the car went kaput during the first hour, so we passed the trip in the old-fashioned way: with inane songs and potty humor. “Icabod is itchy, I am too!” Luke sang from the way back. “Has it gotten stuck in your head yet?”
In April, most the trees along the highways are still wiry brushes, but some have been rolled in a colored syrup. Chartreuse, persimmon, or purple, pinpricks of color outlining the structure, revealing its secrets.
We hugged my parents with bare faces for the first time in a year. Around the dinner table, we sat close together eating every last spaghetti strand clung with my mom’s meat sauce. It was as if nothing had happened.
But time could be measured in the wrinkles around my eyes, in Mark’s stature, now taller than mine, and in the gait of my parents, slower, tentative. They showed us how they sit on a bench before dinner to watch the kittens prance in the garden, chase flies, and stand at the bottom of trees looking up at the birds. And I know they are in the sunset of their lives.
The apple trees in the orchard call to me. A band of angels offering armfuls of blossoms to the sky. Behind every open flower are three or four more pink bells, ready to unfurl. Each five-petaled flower is the face of a child.
After dinner while the kids are playing on the tree swing and my mom is clipping spent daffodils in the falling light, I decide to take a walk around the field. Constellations of fat yellow dandelions are scattered on the path, but it’s the few who have become blowballs that glow at sunset as if it were my eye they wanted to catch instead of the wind.
In August, a sea of soybean plants had risen in this field, and before that in a rare double-crop year, muscly wheat stalks heavy with berries were being harvested when we visited, 40 rows at a time, chaffed, and piled into mountains of gold in open trucks.
Now on this quiet April evening, the field is striated with purples, yellows, and greens. Wide swaths of field balm, violets, butterweed, and wild onion have made the plot into a watercolor rainbow.
I’ve always been torn between the triumphs of human achievement and the unspeakable grace of what unfolds all by itself.
These bitter greens, once collected for nourishment or medicine, will soon be cleared so that we can inject seeds into the ground, the kind that will give us what we love and what we need. French bread and three-layer cakes, taco shells and dumplings, drywall and school glue, toothpaste and tires.
One morning, I convinced the kids to help me walk around the perimeter of the lower pasture to pick up trash that had blown in from the highway. In summer, brush hides the Pepsi cans and Teddy Graham wrappers, Bedda Chedda packages, and dog food bags that we found. Spring’s bareness uncovers of the carelessness of man.
I tell my parents about the apple blossoms and how I’ve missed seeing them when we come in summer, how happy the trees seem to be.
“Last year we only had two or three apples,” my mom tells me. She goes through all the things she and my dad have tried to help them. And then she says, “When Grandpa was alive those trees would be noisy with the buzzing of bees.”
The next time I go to the apple trees, I hear the silence. A single honeybee is visiting. I take pictures of the blossoms again, but now their beauty is tinged with sadness.
The collapse of bee colonies is a sign of our modern blight, the sickness of the world. We have lost our sense of interconnectedness. Nature has become a resource we use to get what we want. Our domination is so complete that we will find ourselves alone, actors in a play we have decided is about us.
At the greenhouse by the cheap gas station and the bait shop, my mom asks the kids to help her select seedlings of cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli.
She won’t need that many because she’s replacing one of her vegetable beds with a pollinator garden of butterfly bushes, Joe Pye weed, and cone flowers. When the owner sees her considering a packet of milkweed seeds, he laughs and says, “My grandmother used to make me go pull that up!”
The problem starts when we forget that everything is sacred. As long as some people or things on earth are revered and others are not, it will be hard to see the bees and the trees and the weeds as holy. Splitting the world splits us inside and we walk around broken, looking for something to make us whole, not knowing that we have been whole all along.
I had bad dreams one night, and as I prepared breakfast for myself the next morning in the cottage, I thought, What if I walked through my days seeing everything as sacred? The pasteurized homogenized milk in my coffee. The genetically-modified industrially farmed corn in my cereal. The dirty sock on the floor, the bricks in the big house, the glue in the particle-board bookshelf.
That sun-bleached potato chip bag forgotten by the side of the road — it’s sacred too. How could it not be when everything has come from the earth and everything will return to it?
On the day before we leave the farm, I put on my gloves to look for trash along the upper pasture. On the way, I visit a lush apple tree as beautiful as a statue, a barn that used to shelter the herefords that my grandfather kept, and the stone gate by Lower Twin that I knew when I was a child.
Collecting beer cans, McDonald’s cups, and ice cream tub lids is a way I can participate. One day this place will be ours to care for, and it to care for us.
In the pasture, I see what look like bones in the grass. The remains of a tree stump has been weathered by rain and whitened by sun. Filling its cavity and encircling it are choirs of purple dead-nettles, a plant once used for treating wounds and healing tuberculosis. In England it’s still called archangel.
When I treat everything as sacred — the faucet water that rinses my hands, the contact lenses I put in my eyes, the toothpaste that cleans my teeth — I slow down. And it becomes easier to do the hardest thing of all — to see myself as sacred. Even the white hairs that shine silver in the bathroom mirror. The skin on my calves that crinkle like crepe as I pull up my socks. I am part of everything that lives and dies.
I don’t feel so helpless anymore. And I stop worrying that I don’t know how to complete the circle. When I find the holiness in everything, I find the beginning and the end. I have a feeling that this knowing is all I need.