We have two social events each year at the farm, in addition to many visits with friends and family. Both of our social events celebrate our union with the earth. In the autumn, it is cider pressing, usually in October, but timing depends on which apples have had the better year. Sometimes the heavier crop is the early varieties, ready by mid-August into early September. Sometimes it is the late apples that reach their prime in early to mid-November, but in heavy crop years some begin falling in time to mix them with the early apples, providing pleasant tartness to the early cider. Under ideal conditions, when all varieties have had a good year, we will press cider two, or sometimes three times, spreading the cheer as well as the wealth of the orchard. The other event is our annual prairie burn, which we try to schedule in early May, when there is still a nip in the evening air, and mornings are often yet frosty, but cool-season grasses have started to grow while prairie species are still biding their time, waiting for the soil to warm.
We have three prairies. The biggest is a new prairie I recently started, replacing 12 acres of fallow weeds in a federal conservation reserve program (CRP). We also have a well-established seven-acre prairie started eight years ago, also on CRP land that was dominated by non-native smooth brome grass. The oldest prairie is a small, quarter-acre patch that borders the east side of the backyard, next to the orchard. When we bought the farm, the septic system was in dire need of an upgrade. A bathroom had been installed many decades earlier, but the drain ran east into a drywell, little more than a big hole in the orchard that was lined with stone and covered with a concrete cap. Some of the stone wall had collapsed and the entire system was unreliable, not to mention in violation of every code. Because the house had five bedrooms, such as they were, code required a huge drain field, fit for a small resort, regardless of how many lived in the house. That drain field became our first prairie, really, a prairie garden.
The knoll along the north side of the orchard perked well, so we removed that quarter acre from the agricultural field, had the drain field installed, then begin seeding and transplanting it to native prairie species. With the help of my brother, who is an insatiable seed-gatherer, we soon had over 40 species growing well. This is not only a lovely prairie, with many native flowers most of the summer, and big bluestem reaching twice as high as my head by early August, and a bluebird house on a post that disappears in the prairie about the time the third brood takes flight, but it is also a butterfly and bee garden. I circled the prairie with a mowed trail, and several times a week I stroll slowly amongst the flowers and grasses that once covered hundreds of thousands of Midwestern acres, but which now exist primarily in patches along railroads and in old cemeteries. I haven’t tried to keep track of all the kinds of butterflies and bees I see in that patch, but my happiness at seeing them seems matched by their carefree flight among the plants with which they feel at home, and a steady hum in May when the orchard is in bloom.
Usually the week before we burn the big prairie, Ryan and I will choose a quiet evening to burn the prairie garden. At that time, the native insects are still hibernating in the soil, or hidden in some woodland fringe or old building. Prairie fires are spectacular. Jesse brings the children to watch the show. Fireworks displays, with their disconcerting explosions, are no match for a prairie fire on an early May evening as dusk is starting to fall across the land.
Yellow and orange flames leap into the sky as first one clump of prairie grass, then another ignites, interspersed with creeping fire, reaching out for cup-plants, cone flowers, compass plant, little bluestem, and all the rest. In thirty minutes, only ashes and thin fingers of smoke remain above ground, but nestled in the surface soil, dormant plants and insects are prepared to rise again, as they have following prairie fires for thousands of years. This marks the start of a new growing season, much as tapping maples marks the end of winter.
The seven-acre prairie burn requires much more planning. We coordinate with several neighbors who also have prairies, scheduling fires all within a week or two if the weather cooperates. As May approaches, we assemble and check equipment, and alert friends, neighbors, and relatives. A week or two before we begin, we clean up fire breaks and apply for burning permits. Using ten-day weather forecasts, we set some tentative dates and notify those who plan to participate. A day or two before the intended burn, we confirm it. During the afternoon, I will have set out buckets of water and equipment around the perimeter of the seven-acre prairie, loaded the big sprayer into the bucket of the tractor and filled it with water, charged the battery that operates the sprayer, and lined up tables and benches for the potluck that will follow the fire. I call other neighbors to alert them to the fire so they are not alarmed by the smoke. People begin showing up with rakes, shovels, or whatever equipment they have, and with a covered dish in the late afternoon.
By 5:30, we are assembled at the prairie, where we review the fire plan with the 15 to 20 who will help, then call the sheriff’s office to let them know we are starting a controlled fire. Using big sprayers and back-pack sprayers, we wet down the perimeter ahead of the torches, then ignite the edge so that the fire burns into the wind.
It takes half an hour to complete the initial burn, which provides a safe buffer for the head fire. When all is ready, we continue to the far side of the prairie, and ignite the head fire that, depending on wind and conditions, jogs or races headlong across the remaining prairie. If conditions are good, flames can climb 20 or 30 feet, or more, adding a crescendo to the burn.
In less than an hour, the job is done. We notify the sheriff’s office, and gather for food, drink, and comradery. It is one of the most enjoyable social events of the year for me, and we get to do it several evenings, depending on how many other prairies we burn. I see more of my neighbors the week we burn our prairies than during the entire rest of the year.
Cider pressing is a tamer affair. We begin gathering apples as they ripen. I say “gathering” because more are probably picked off the ground than from a tree. Our old apple trees often have heavy crops every two or three years, far heavier than the old limbs can support. I’ve cut forked poles from smaller trees in the woods to prop up the heavily laden limbs. As the apples begin to mature and over-burden the tree, many begin to drop, hastened in many cases by insects that have invested them, and by wind. If gathered weekly, the drops are not much different than apples we might pick except bruises soon become rotten spots. Places where insects have invaded or birds pecked at them also may have some spoilage, but once ground and pressed, the juice is the same flavor as from apples without defect. Our apples are free of any pesticides. We prefer a few worms and rotten spots to the unseen, unknown risks of pesticides in our cider.
The orchard is as old as the farm, and the ten larger trees are well over 100 years old. We have replaced trees as they die with semi-dwarf apples, cherries, and one apricot, keeping about 18 trees in the orchard in all. The old trees appear to have been pruned regularly for many years, then were neglected for many decades. All have hollow trunks, and very irregular branching as a result. Bluebirds and Red-headed Woodpeckers nest in hollow trunks of our old apple trees, and Baltimore Orioles and Kingbirds nest among the branches. Because apples are sensitive to aggressive pruning, I have slowly restored them, removing dead wood where I could without eliminating hollow limbs, reshaping the living branches. Most trees in the orchard require relatively little pruning now, but we have four large wild trees, apples that came up from seeds, scattered around the backyard and lane leading to the woods. Three of them fruit very well and have interesting apples, but they also are much more prone to produce water sprouts, those fast-growing shoots that come off main stems and never produce flowers. One tree, in particular, requires hours to prune each spring, but it produces the biggest apples of any tree on the property, and some of my neighbors with whom I share apples say it has the best apples for pies. They also make very good cider. Another of the wild apples has abundant crops of very sweet apples each year. Deer love them, but they are too sweet for my taste. However, they mix well in the cider with the tart late apples. One other wild tree, back of the barn, has a nice-tasting apple, but they are small and tedious to peel, but no problem in the cider mill.
When we have several bushels of apples picked, we send out the word that we’ll be pressing cider. We usually have no idea who will show up, if anyone, to help. There are four or five jobs involved: washing and sorting apples (those that have become too spoiled are given to the chickens), cranking the mill, adding apples to the hopper at a pace not so fast that the mill plugs, pouring the juice through a filter into jugs, and hauling apple pulp to the chicken pen and putting a new basket under the grinder to catch the next batch. Of course, there is plenty of time to drink apple juice with any job. If enough people show up, they may be assigned apple picking, or they rotate through one or more of the jobs to provide relief for aching muscles. Each bushel of apples will make two to three gallons of juice.
The difference between apple juice and cider depends on whom you ask. Fresh apple juice has plenty of sugars and natural yeast, so will ferment quickly if left unpasteurized and unrefrigerated. Even in the refrigerator, it will ferment slowly over a couple of weeks. For many, it is the presence of alcohol that makes cider; others will refer to the fermented juice as “hard cider.” If hard cider is allowed to freeze, and the frozen water removed, the alcohol becomes concentrated. This is called “applejack,” and was a great favorite in times past. It can be as intoxicating, even more than wine. I personally prefer sweet cider, or apple juice, but don’t mind a bit of a kick to my chilled cider.
This past winter was colder and longer than usual, with a cool, wet spring that seemed to linger into summer. The extreme cold tested the mettle of plumbing and plants, and the capacity of the woodpile. Most of the older apple trees suffered die-back, and one tree, that I planted only three years ago, looks as if it might not make it through the summer. The branches of the younger tree were so heavily laden with beautiful, blemish-free fruit last summer that I had to prop them up. I would hate to lose such a wonderfully productive tree, but that would be less painful for me than losing one of the old trees that has been part of this homestead for well over 100 years. One of my oldest trees, a wonderful, tart, late apple whose linage I was unable to unravel, leafed out in May but immediately began dying, limb by limb. By mid-July, all limbs were dead and no sprouts were forthcoming. No birds were using it, so I reduced it to firewood. I also removed dead limbs from several of the other apples, cutting the larger ones into lengths for the stove. Year by year, I can see the old trees failing, much as I watched the process in my grandparents and my parents, and as I feel it myself. My son, Ryan, and his wife, Jesse, were married under one of the big old trees that is now nearing the end. Jesse observed the other day as we were gathering apples that the old tree was failing and wondered if it was an omen. I suggested that it was a good omen that their enduring marriage has outlasted the apple tree, and we’ll plant another to celebrate their tenth anniversary.
An old apple tree gives up life differently than an aging animal like me. Unless attacked by a systemic disease, trees die slowly, limb by limb, sometimes over decades. Technically, one might argue that we begin dying as soon as we’re born, although growth outpaces death initially. We rarely equate the signs of aging in people with dying, but graying hair, wrinkles, and aching joints are indications that our repair mechanisms are not keeping pace with the passing years. Old age for both plants and animals is associated, among other things, with accumulation of mutations that slow down metabolism. As cells age, new plant tissues are slower to develop, so the damage from bitter cold, drought, insects, fungi, and a host of other agents cannot be repaired fast enough. New roots are slower to form, stressing the tree with lack of water and nutrients, further reducing its ability to respond to injury. If the injury is resulting from disease or insects, we can remove the infected limb or attempt to control the insects, but nearly always, with both plants and animals, one stress increases vulnerability to other stresses in a losing battle with death. To some extent, animal cells can be replaced, and some tissues continue to grow, but we have considerable limits in our ability to replace organ systems. Trees, on the other hand, grow new reproductive organs and leaves, as well as roots and vascular tissues each year, but with less and less vigor as aging advances. Interestingly, apple trees seem to have about the same life expectancy as people.
Perhaps it is my advancing age that makes it more painful to see the old apple trees dying, limb by limb. Those old trees are integral to this landscape, much as the old barn is integral to the farm. Just ask the woodpeckers, kingbirds, orioles, and bluebirds that nest there. Ask the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of kinds of native bees, flies, and wasps attracted to the nectar and pollen each May. Ask the Bobolink that nests in the adjacent field and sings its bubbly song from the top of one of the old trees. Ask the deer that wander in to feed on fallen apples in the frosty November morning, their breath curling around their ears like bushy white hair. Ask my friends who gather to press the juice from the apples and share the joy of the harvest season. All too soon, we will be at that time, as Robert Frost put it, “…done with apple-picking now.”
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