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When I was a child, you couldn’t have paid me to eat an apple. The bright red picture-perfect fruit was always disappointing. The waxy skin was tough and bitter and the inside was bland. I didn’t like the way the fruit felt in my mouth as I chewed. The Red Delicious apples that were in the grocery store, on my lunch tray at school or in the fruit bowl in the kitchen at home were the Kardashians of fruit: Pretty to look at but not much more than that.
It wasn’t until years later when I discovered other varieties, the Macintosh, the Gala and Fuji, the Braeburn and Honeycrisp, that I became an apple fan. The exact opposite of the apples I’d hated as a child, they were crisp and sweet and heavy with juice and I kept them in the fruit bowl and packed them in my own children’s lunches. I baked them, and made apple sauce. I sliced them, browned them in butter and sprinkled the caramelized slices with cinnamon before serving them on cool autumn nights. Once in a while I made a pie.
I began to hear more about heirloom apples, varieties that were old and in danger of disappearing completely, and the growers who were working hard to save them. It was hard to imagine that there had once been so many kinds of apple and some had disappeared completely while we were engineering fruit solely for appearance and durability.
But visiting the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska, I took the Discovery Ride around the farm, a 45-minute narrated wagon ride behind a tractor. We learned the unique story of the farm, the history of Arbor Day and the work of the Arbor Day Foundation, before stopping in front of the Preservation Orchard.
“Now, this,” our guide Carol told us, “is a special place.”
As she showed us the rows of heirloom apple trees, some still heavy with beautiful fruit, she talked about the farm’s dedication to preserving the old, and in some cases endangered, varieties. Some of the trees were marked and I read the names: Wheeler’s Golden Russet, Old Nonpariel, and Raine de Reinette.
There were others: the Wolf River apple, an apple so big one was enough for a pie. The Arkansas Black, with its distinctive purple color, and Esopus Spitzenburg, the orange-colored apple that was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite.
We were invited to choose an apple from any tree and I wanted to choose wisely, so I took my time, walking slowly between the rows of trees. I finally decided on an Opalescent. I liked the tree for it’s toughness, its branches had been damaged but the tree had borne well in spite of the injury, and, to be honest, I was intrigued by the oddly-elegant name. I reached up, let the apple rest lightly in my palm, and twisted it gently. The ripe fruit fell into my hand and I admired it for a moment before I took a bite.
The apple was dense and crisp and the flavor was surprisingly delicate, with just a hint of violets and strawberries. It probably wasn’t the rarest in the Preservation Orchard but it was a good choice for me.
Maybe that’s what is most important about places like the Arbor Day Farm Preservation Orchard. These trees and their fruit are part of our history. Our story. They are worth saving and sharing. You shouldn’t have to be all grown up before you taste something so good.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Kaki Smith)
The house was just an ordinary little cottage in Sturgeon Bay, not one of the tall old farm houses—part of the dairy and agricultural legacy of the area—that line the roads along Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. It was just an average family house in a nice little town. But the Maple tree in the front yard was another matter. Even in a place crowded with trees in full color, that tree was enough to make anyone slow down and take a second look. Covered in brilliant and beautiful leaves, it seemed to be even more intense than any of the others around it and everyone in the car, each of us adults who’ve seen beautiful autumns before, people who might have become jaded at some point, had some comment. Out came the cameras and photos of a beautiful Maple tree were added to the albums on our smart phones.
All that fuss over a tree? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if you’re not happy about summer slowly fading away to be replaced by winter’s chill. It doesn’t matter if we complain about the shorter days and nights cool enough to chase us indoors when just a few weeks ago we would have lingered over one more cup of coffee or glass of wine. This time of year, when nature throws a party and colorful leaves fall around us like confetti and drift onto sidewalks and stick to the windshield of the car, we celebrate.
But, of course, that party is better in some places.
I got lucky. I could have been anywhere in mid-October. But at the peak of the most beautiful time of the year, I was in Door County traveling along the narrow peninsula that juts like a thumb on the east side of Wisconsin, a place that is sometimes called the Cape Cod of the Midwest. It’s an apt description. Small villages dot the shoreline of Lake Michigan or, on the other side, Green Bay. White clapboard houses, big red barns and, of course, hardwood trees whose leaves show their true, beautiful, colors for a few weeks each year, dot the landscape.
And during those weeks everything changes. Ordinary roads turn into picturesque leafy lanes that curve and meander under an arching canopy of trees so beautiful you crane to look up through the windshield as you drive. Hillsides become a patchwork quilt of color with scarlet, green and gold, stitched together as far as the eye can see. Markets are filled with apples and pumpkins and even a rainy day is beautiful.
It’s easy to see why people allot precious vacation time to this season, booking cottages or hotel rooms in the quiet weeks before winter sets it. Especially in a place where for a few weeks each year even little trees in front of an ordinary house dazzle us before they settle down to sleep the winter away.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
Summer is gone and the first day of fall has arrived, as Montana outdoor photographer Jaime Johnson reminds us with the photo above.
Each year, the appearance of a single flame-red tree, amid a sea of green leafiness in Boise's North End, signals the start of fall for me; I first spotted it two days ago, but this was my first chance to snap a picture. Already, the foliage around it is starting to take on glints of gold.