Sometimes the trees can get too tall. They shoot up straight as if to poke the sun. Sometimes they get too green. They wrestle leaves into every clear space, strangling their own fruit. Sometimes they bear too much, globes weighing the branches until they break.
You pretend it’s someone else’s job to care for it, but all along you’ve known the orchard was also yours. You still want to be the child, even though you know they are tired, even though you know it’s your turn, even though you’re the only one who can do it now.
Under the pear tree, the kittens pounce on fireflies and paw at rolling apples. Loppers lean against a trunk, a saw lies on the grass, and a pair of clippers on the ladder shelf. The branches you have cut are black with death and, at first, the trees look bare.
Diseased, broken, or dead: those branches were the easiest to remove. It’s the young ones that break your heart. You must remove those that grow inward and make the tree too dark. Take the ones that grow downward, for they will not support fruit when it comes. Cut the branches that cross others, sowing disorder and conflict.
You must not be too harsh, not too delicate. You must not take too much, not too little. You must not think only of the fruit soon to be in your hand, your pie, your saucepan. You must think of next fall and the next fall and two dozen falls from today.
Don’t think you’re being kind to use a soft blade. Sharp cuts are easier to heal. Don’t think you’re being gentle by leaving some of the branch — you must take it all, for stumps invite rot and parasites.
When you have done the work, the dead wood must be gathered and cleared away. The children won’t want to help. Like you once, they just want to be free. But they need to feel the pull of their muscles and the taste of their sweat. It would be good for them to feel the rhythm and reciprocity of nature’s partnership.
If your life is to be fruitful, you cannot let your orchard go, simply because it will without any help from you. You must be a steward, deciding what lives and what dies.
Wind must be able to rush through your trees, blowing away that which festers and stagnates. Sunlight must be able to reach the inner places, drying the rain and curing the ills.
If your life is to be fruitful, you must visit your orchard in all seasons, learning the shape and habit of each tree, noticing what grows and what aches.
Above all, you must be a friend. When you walk through your orchard, listen more than you speak. Notice the tiniest unfurlings of beauty and grace. Feel how sacred the world is when you see, and the seen senses your gaze.
The trees along the route are bare now. Air sparkles between their trunks like blue glitter as we fly by on the highway. Diana and I are driving to Ohio to pick up Sofia from college and see my parents and their new kittens.
The noon sun in November is mellow, lighting up the yellow anthers of the Indiangrass that grows by the roadside. The once green hills now look like a Parisian dress, mottled gray and olive. Red barns crouch in valleys. Silos are obelisks at the top of hills. Moss covers mountainsides.
I notice that the rural Maryland landscape looks pastoral and soft when Ohio is our destination. But the exact same terrain, when we are traveling back to D.C., looks Eastern and dramatic.
It seems impossible but true that I have viewed the entire world through the hue of my mind.
When we started out Friday at 8:30, Diana did her Morning Meeting from the car with the iPad balanced on her lap. “I’m going camping in my backyard tonight until 9 or 8,” one second grader in her class said about his weekend.
“I’m driving to my grandparents’ house,” Diana said, “and it’s going to take 7 hours to get there.”
“It takes 14 hours to get to my grandparents’ house,” another child said.
After a long morning of driving, we pull into the Panera parking lot in Clarksburg, West Virginia. In the grass median, I stretch my legs and Diana jogs limply saying, “I can’t run.” We find ourselves doing yoga poses — warrior 2, 1, then 3 — while people at the Jiffy Lube watch us from their cars, motors running. “Now I can run fast!” Diana says, and tears across the grass like a circular saw through a fresh slab of pine.
“Do you want my soup?” I ask Diana, after I have eaten all I can.
“If you don’t like it, that’s okay,” she says. “I don’t like it either, but…” she says while spooning it into her mouth, and I laugh in my voluminous way.
“Your laugh is so loud,” she says with a new self-consciousness. “Everyone can hear you.” I look around at a handful of customers sitting two-by-two in booths, and the store manager at a nearby table repairing what appear to be decorative bull horns, but no one even stirs.
When we finally exit the freeway at 4 in the afternoon, this is the Ohio I know. Undulating plains and little white houses. One-lane highways running through modest hamlets. Strip malls and chain stores. “There are so many farms here,” Diana says when we get close to my family’s place.
The corn is silver-gold, still standing in the fields. Rows of dried soybean plants harvested close to the ground have made the fields into oceans of beige corduroy.
When we pass the farm that used to belong to my great-great grandmother’s sister, we slow down. Then at the Dairy Hut where the Methodist Episcopal used to stand before they tore it down and broke my mother’s heart, we take a right. My parents and their three-month-old kittens await us in the house on the hill.
When we were visiting in July, this farm was in the flush of fertility. Wheat was being harvested and soybeans were being planted right after in a rare double crop year. Only a few fuzzy pods remain where the harvester couldn’t reach, at the very edge of the field or where a branch had fallen.
This is beautiful too. This is as alive as the time of color and heat.
In winter, you can see nature’s hidden structure — the order and the tangles, each embedded in the other.
The star-shaped crack in the cut circle of a log.
Thistle florets, dry and downy, stars in galaxy after galaxy.
Everything in the universe can be found within itself, patterns repeating according to eternal laws.
At the creek, the razzmatazz cicadas of summer are no more. Only a few crickets remain, trilling a lullaby. The waves of poison ivy that once forbade our entry have surrendered. Mud has been tamed with a layer of crackly leaves. There is no stifling humidity, no whine of mosquitoes. The biggest danger now is the dark and the cold. Night is falling.
In Japan, beauty is found in decline, in the weathered and the worn. I love the way the woven wire pasture fence rusts. How the rain has washed the white paint off the cow barn. The way the Hackwood trees lean over the sides of the creek until they slowly fall in.
“Be very careful on the roads today,” my mom tells me the next day before I leave to pick up Sofia at Kenyon. “It’s deer season,” she says. Rutting season is when male deers are so intent on finding a companion that they run across highways. Dying to mate.
The freeways the day before had been splattered with blood. Mangled deer were slumped on the shoulder. Raw necks exposed. Parts strewn across the lanes.
I write down my dad’s directions and look at the map and drive the two and a half hours without the car telling me what to do, because I want to pay attention. After Mom’s Bait Shop, you take a left onto Pleasant Valley Road and drive by the patch of rotting pumpkins. At the middle school, you take another left, past the prison and the golf course, and route 23 takes you north, by the Dollar Generals and Speedways and Bob Evanses along the feeder road.
I don’t see any rutting deer, but the rain has shined the highway into platinum gold. There is a truck ahead of me called Super Ego Holdings. What is the message for me in the morality play of my life? To me, everything is meaningful, although the daughter I am driving to pick up believes that nothing is.
A dad loading a minivan holds the door to the two-story sandstone building. This is the second and last time I’ll step foot in Sofia’s dorm. It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the rest of the year will be remote.
As I walk through the hall, I am reminded of my ‘50s era elementary school — the smell of pine cleaner, the memory of asbestos, the aging glazed brick.
I knock a rhythm on the door, and Sofia opens it. Her smile and her hug fills me with the kind of warmth that floods your body after a good run. She thinks that she hasn’t done enough packing, but I see a dorm room ready to be folded into a car and driven away. I start taking armloads down to the car while she packs up the last things, vacuums the floor, and slips her key into a little manila envelope.
We drive through the rain all afternoon, and talk about whether she’ll defer next semester or work on an organic farm or take classes from her laptop in the basement. We get lost and make the final way back to my parents’ farm through one-lane roads of mobile homes, chicken coops, and garden pedestals in front yards holding blue gazing balls.
Bringing Sofia to the farm and then home feels like retrieving an important part of a puzzle, a puzzle whose borders are not so straight anymore.
The next morning, we hug my parents good-bye with masks on. The kittens will be cats the next time we visit. Diana knows it was I who left four quarters and took the tooth under her pillow the night before.
Sofia drives the first half and I sit in the passenger seat. “Look how many people are dead!” Diana says when we pass the graveyard next to Tanya’s house. A herd of black cows grazes on a lopsided hill. Eastern white pines, with their straight arms, are many-limbed crosses.
Little by little the flat farmlands give way to the foothills of the Appalachians. As we climb the mountain range, we begin passing resorts, vacation homes, and camps: Jesus in the Hills Camp, Chief Logan Boy Scout Camp, Canter’s Cave 4-H Camp.
Beloved mountains. Shelter from the wind, the sun, and the rain, and perhaps most of all, from ourselves. In the mountains, there is always another ridge, another stand of trees to hide behind. To get lost and find yourself in.
In the late afternoon light of western Maryland, I get tired and Sofia takes the wheel again. Diana chants, “Skittles, Skittles, snake,” practicing her Ss with her two front teeth missing. Her new ‘S’ sounds like air being let out of a tire.
In the vast expanse of leafless brown woods that line the highways, I notice the evergreen trees. Insignificant in summer, their green now holds everything together. Bridging the worlds of activity and hibernation, fecundity and decay, they remind me that even though nothing in this world stays the same, there is something through it all that is eternal.
My daughters are bingeing on ‘Game of Thrones’ on the screened-in porch, trying to finish the entire 8 seasons before Sofia goes off to college. Mark, Luke, and Diana are playing badminton in the dwindling August twilight.
After dinner we rode bikes down to the convenience store on Route 50 to buy a gallon of milk. I strapped the last gallon they had to the back of my bike and rode home with Juicy Drop Pops and Reeses cups in a Par Mar Stores bag hanging from the handlebars.
The kids bat at the birdie with rackets too long for them on a span of grass a thousand times larger than the patch of weeds behind our house in D.C., and I want them to play as long as they can, to soak up this freedom until they’re full, because in a few days, they’ll be back to a city playground, and school will start on a computer screen, and for a minute I worry that they don’t have enough.
Somewhere beyond the pasture, a conch-shell sun lights up a mass of clouds that plods across the sky like an ocean liner. When I stay right here where I am, in this moment, in this Ohio countryside, there is no problem. I am not in pain. No one is mad at me, I am not late, I am not wrong. There is nothing I am supposed to do, nowhere I need to go.
How long can I stay here, encapsulated in this moment, like an unbroken bubble, a piece of taffy that stretches and stretches, a smooth highway that never ends, before my mind breaks off and goes somewhere else? The explosion in Beirut, the upcoming election, the email with no response, the virus spiking in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia —
If I begin spinning intricate adult coloring books in my mind, who is inhabiting the life that is already colored in right here?
From my armchair inside the cottage, I hear crickets making long dashes in chirring morse code. The children are now meowing in the basement pretending to be adopted kittens who don’t know how to brush their teeth. The clouds have made a blue surfboard and a shaving cream spume against a sky of cotton candy and butter. The trees are navy green silhouettes and the black fences are disappearing into the fuzzy green pasture.
This stillness I feel when I pay attention to my life right now — this awareness, this in-ness — is where answers will come from. I look elsewhere, but if I would just be, the wisdom, the knowing, the right thing would come to me.
‘Chock, chock’ goes the clock on the wall. The shadow under my 12-year-old’s chin, the freckle there, the way my 10-year-old looks into my eyes when I really see him. The 6-year-old sucking her thumb, wet hair on the pillow, saying she is grateful for ping-pong.
When I am inserted into this life, I am connected with everything that is here and the knowing that pervades it all. The cicadas who know what year to crawl out of the ground and how to call a mate, the grass that knows when to start growing — the moon how to orbit the earth, the dog where to give birth, the tomato seed how to make another tomato, the horse how to die.
There’s a place on every staircase where the notes of the lullaby amplify and round and deepen. I sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ with ‘du-du-du’s instead of words as I stand on the stairs up from the children’s darkened room, and I wonder what they look like in their beds. Are they sad, are they disappointed, have I done enough?
If I could live my life one full-bodied moment to the next, I wouldn’t need to worry about what’s going to happen, to practice what to say, fuss over what I’ve messed up. If I weren’t interrupting life all the time, trying to rearrange it, I would take each challenge as it came.
If there were more escapes like this one in the country, more eddies in the river of life, where I could sleep when I feel tired, be alone when I need space, let sadness rest in me when it comes. If I could shut off the wind turbine so all my thoughts would flutter to the ground and I could see for a while.
Because in this clearness, I know that I wouldn’t need to worry so much. I wouldn’t need to try so hard. In this stillness, I would know when to cut, when to mend, when to run, when to embrace, when to apologize, when to be silent, when to act, and when to let it be.
To get to the lower pasture, you have to descend through a tunnel of trees, a darkened archway that takes some faith to enter. Shadows deepen as you leave the world of fields, barns, and sunlight, and enter this shadowy crescent of land between the creek and the wooded ridge.
Down here you can no longer see the house or the cottage. The only signs of civilization are a couple of plastic Adirondack chairs overturned near a circle of rocks where we sometimes have bonfires, and a metal target my dad uses for shooting practice.
I usually only go down here to get to the creek, where I used to play when I was little, making names for sandbars like Cuttlefish Land, and finding odd bits of someone else’s life along the banks — an iron, a chandelier frame, a boot.
We have returned to this place in the Ohio countryside because — with 38 states off-limits due to rising coronavirus cases, and every vacation rental booked within a 4-state radius — we knew the cottage was empty, and even though we visited last month, my parents said, Come!
I walk down the path my dad has mowed along the creek. The creek is still now, its sloping banks dry and silent. It’s dusk, almost dark, and mosquitoes whine around my neck. Flying things keep getting caught in my hair. The trees are so loud with the razz of cicadas it seems that they are made of cymbals instead of leaves.
It’s our first night in the country, having driven 7 hours from D.C. to get here, to this house which has been in my family since 1862. After a welcome dinner of grilled hamburgers, my mom’s baked beans and potato salad, and Dairy Hut ice cream with peaches and blueberries, I have taken a walk, and since my daughter took the upper path around the soybean fields, I took the lower one.
Here in the lower pasture, it’s nothing like the land above with its brick terraces, bedspreads, and wi-fi. Where redbuds are groomed and swings are tied around oaks. The only purposeful trees down here are a few deformed walnuts getting strangled by vines. Spider silks break across my torso, and I get the feeling I’m trespassing.
I walk beside the band of walnut and tulip trees that separates upper from lower pasture. They lurch out, as if wanting to take back the land that was cleared for cows and corn. I peer into the thicket. It’s not deep but so dark, and I see why the first European settlers to North America, arriving in a place where trees took the sun, suffered from a depression called ‘green gloom.’
I mustn’t wander from my father’s mowed path of clover and wild violet. An army of young poison ivy plants has marched right up to the edge. They glow a florescent green in the falling light, and rising above the dull grasses with their forked leaves of three, they look like vampires ready to attack.
Nature is always just about to win in the country. You can repair a fence, patch a leak, trim a hedge, but the wild always returns. You can get the flying ants out, and then swarms of ladybugs will infiltrate. You can shore up the creek bank with boulders, but the water will take your land farther down. Seal up snake holes in the foundation, and bats get in through the chimney.
I pick up a bit of brown lace on the ground. A poplar leaf whose flesh has been completely devoured by caterpillars who don’t care for the veins, leaving behind an intricate skeleton, a tragedy so beautiful it might be found on the cutting room floors of a Parisian fashion house. The earth caves in as I walk and I imagine the elaborate tunnel works that moles and groundhogs have made under my feet.
Beyond the creosote post-and-rail fence at the end of the pasture, pickup trucks sail over Route 50. Their tires spin over the pavement at 55 miles per hour, barely slowing through the no-stop-light town that sits at the edge of our farm.
Where the creek goes under the highway, it joins up with the bigger one where my grandmother’s brother drowned when he was only 10 years old. A strange odor rises from the banks, and it smells sweet and rotten like boiled milk and decomposing crawdads.
It’s time to get back, and tuck in the kids. Clumps of ironweed chirp as I walk by. My grandfather used to bushhog the thistles and ironweed when there were cows in this pasture. Now there are no cows, and my parents are the grandparents.
I have to walk through the tunnel of trees up the hill once more to get home. Lightning bugs, harbingers of summer magic in the world above, blink an eerie green down here, as if signaling a witches spell.
When I emerge onto the smooth flat plain, the sky opens big over me and I feel washed with an ocean of dove-blue light. The land is an outstretched palm holding me up to the heavens. In the distance, there is Comfer’s barn where it always has been, and a band of the day’s last light hangs over the distant blue hills. The houses pour yellow light from every window, calling me home.