Friday, October 26, 2012

The Tree That Let Go

If you're a kid, one of the best things about living on a farm, even one as modest as our own, is having a pasture to frolic in, barn stalls to hide in, animals to play with, a garden to taste, a creek to splash in, woods to explore, and plenty of trees to climb. It seems a rare thing these days for kids to have so many outdoor spaces to enjoy, so we do our best to make sure that our girls have opportunities every day to spend a generous amount of time outside the house. Of course, their adventures often bring with them a certain amount of risk, and they have had more than a few scrapes and bumps since we moved here. But they seem to consider these minor injuries a small price to pay for the joys of their outdoor escapades.

In the past few years of homeschooling the girls, I have discovered that outdoor time not only provides endless opportunities for exercise and adventure; it can also do wonders to facilitate indoor learning. (Of course, many other parents, teachers, and scholars have discovered this as well. You can read much more about this issue in the well-cited article "Children's Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educators and Educational Settings," published by the Children and Nature Network.) Because of that, I often break up our "school hours" with several mini-recesses in which the girls can traipse through the woods, play in the Enchanted Garden, visit with the animals in the barnyard, or simply jump rope in the driveway. It truly is amazing what 10 minutes of fresh air can do for student morale! But again, this carries with it some risk. They occasionally get involved in something that seems much more pressing than the awaiting math problems, making coming back indoors wrenchingly difficult. Or a chicken poops on one of them and we have to interrupt everything for a sponge bath and a change of clothes. Or something more serious. Like last Thursday when one of the trees in the barnyard let go of Segi.

The girls and I had been studying pumpkins that morning. We had read a couple of books about the life cycle of pumpkins and then had planted a few pumpkin seeds to grow in the Discovery Room along with the hodgepodge of other "teaching plants" we have there. Our next activity was to be a visit the local Pumpkin Patch to pick up a few pumpkins for carving and baking, but I needed a few minutes to record some of our work, so I told the girls, "Just run out to the barnyard for a quick recess. I'll call you to come to the car in a few minutes." Before those few minutes were up, Simi (the younger of my two daughters) burst through the door, crying that Segi had fallen out of Grandma Tree and that she was "really hurt!" I grabbed my boots and dashed out the door and straight to the barnyard. By the time I got to the gate, Segi had gotten herself up and was walking toward me. At first, I thought, "Oh, thank goodness. It's nothing serious." Then I saw her lower left arm. It looked like one of those sidewalks they're laying in Davidson now that go along straight for a bit and then abruptly jut out to avoid the tree standing in the path. The gnarled bend was right at her wrist. I knew right then we were on our way to the hospital.
First, though, our pediatrician's office sent us to an Emergency Center, where Segi got a few X-rays and a swallow of pain medicine, and I got several hints that this might be more serious than a simple broken bone. We were next sent (after a few hours of waiting, of course) to an orthopedic surgeon's office, who informed us that in addition to the other breaks, the growth plate in her wrist was badly displaced and, indeed, would nee to be surgically corrected--immediately. So off we trudged to the hospital, Segi now beside herself with pain and getting delirious from hunger. Simi and I spent the next few hours trying to comfort her and make her as comfortable as possible.  Finally, around 5:30 that evening, they wheeled Segi into the operating room. Everything went fine, and though we had a few rough days, she seems to have adapted quickly to her cast and the lifestyle changes it has necessitated.

The whole time we were sitting in the hospital fretting and waiting . . . and fretting and waiting some more, I kept thinking of how, just the night before, my husband had come inside and told me, "Those girls shouldn't be climbing so much in that tree. One of them is going to fall and break an arm." Seriously, just the night before. "Oh, honey," I'd responded nonchalantly, "What's the point of being a kid if you can't climb a tree?" My siblings and I had been raised in a rural town in Tennessee and had spent a good deal of our childhood out in the woods swinging on vines, traversing creeks, wading on half-frozen ponds, and of course, climbing lots and lots of trees. We loved it, and so do my girls. And though I sometimes do worry a bit, I generally agree with E.B. White when, in his passage on the Zuckermans' barn swing, he says that "Children almost always hang onto thing tighter than their parents think they will." So my own kids don't often get much discouragement from climbing high and swinging wide. In fact, the girls had recently taken to climbing Grandma tree with books in hand and perching aloft to read. Okay, maybe that's not such a great idea when you're 15 feet in the air. Maybe mamas don't always know best.

For my older daughter, Segi, always wants to climb just a little higher than reasonable. She's the kid at the park who ignores the civilized little steps leading up to the tunnel she's meant to crawl through and instead climbs up the wall and onto the top of the tunnel. She was the four-year-old that terrified all the other guests at the gymnastics birthday party by zipping up to the top of the climbing ropes and hanging over to wave at everyone. I should have remembered this about her. I should have given her and her sister some thoughtful guidance and some serious warnings. But I hadn't, and this time, she'd not only gone very high but had selected a branch that was too small--and probably too rotted--to hold her. And much to her surprise, it couldn't. With a loud cracked, it led her right to the leafy ground beneath--luckily on her wrist and not her head.

A kid sharing one of the several waiting areas we sat in on the day of her accident asked us upon hearing Segi's story, "Are you going to cut the tree down?" "Of course not!" all three of us said together. It would never have occurred to Segi to be angry at the tree that she and her sister had recently dubbed "Grandma Tree." One of the older Sweetgums in the barnyard, it is probably the best climbing tree on our property. But it is also a great tree to read under, and to hug, and to chat with during a rough day. As much as Segi regrets no longer being able to climb Grandma Tree, she still loves her just as much, and now has the opportunity to know and enjoy her in a myriad of new ways.

Harry Behn writes that "Trees are the kindest things I know, they do no harm, they simply grow." It is hard to disagree with that. And yet even the kindest trees--like even the kindest people--also have their weak spots, and if we assume they are stronger than they are, then they can indeed leave us hurting. The tree let go of Segi because it was not as strong at that particular place as Segi assumed it would be. There is a lesson we can all take away from this. It's not, I believe, that we should stop climbing high or running fast or jumping long. It is, rather, that we should acknowledge that even the strongest amongst us are somehow, somewhere weak, and that if we can accept and respect those weaknesses, we will all be much better off. 

--Harry Behn

Trees are the kindest things I know,
They do no harm, they simply grow

And spread a shade for sleepy cows,
And gather birds among their boughs.

They give us fruit in leaves above,
And wood to make our houses of,

And leaves to burn on Halloween
And in the Spring new buds of green.

They are first when day's begun
To touch the beams of morning sun,

They are the last to hold the light
When evening changes into night.

And when a moon floats on the sky
They hum a drowsy lullaby

Of sleepy children long ago...
Trees are the kindest things I know.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Fleeting Joys of Apple Season

That sweet, aromatic, not-too-hot-and-not-too-cool time that is Apple Season has come and gone here in the Carolina Piedmont, and I miss it already. The days of picking, crunching and baking our hearts out always seem to go by much too quickly. But perhaps that makes them all the sweeter while they last. Often just as sweet as the apples themselves is the experience of trekking through a local orchard with my husband and daughters to find the crispiest, juiciest ones.

Papa adorns his apple sprites
with Morning Glory blossoms.
This year we visited Carrigan Farms in Mooresville, NC to do our picking. It was a perfect day for it--bright, crisp and dry. We picked so many we had a hard time carrying them back to the car! There are many other great places to pick apples in North Carolina, especially in the western mountains. In fact, apples are grown in all 50 U.S. states, and grown commercially in 36 states. If you'd like to learn where you can find locally grown apples in or near your own community, visit (This website lists pick-your-own farms for apples and many other kinds of produce throughout U.S. and in a number of other countries as well.)

Not only are apples a delicious, inexpensive, and convenient food, they are also packed with healthy nutrients. While many of us grew up hearing that "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," Kerri-Ann Jennings points out in this Huffington Post article that these days,
apples are so commonplace that they're almost overlooked and pushed aside by flashier superfruits, such as pomegranates and goji berries.
But apples truly are a superfood themselves. Among the many benefits they offer are:
  • Bone protection
  • Asthma relief
  • Weight control
  • Immunity enhancement
  • Cholesterol control
  • Alzheimer's protection
  • Parkinson's protection
  • Cancer protection (lung, breast, colon and liver)
  • Diabetes management
  • Dental health
  • Gallstone prevention
  • Digestive health
  • Hemorrhoid prevention
  • Liver detoxification
It makes sense, then, that humans have enjoyed and celebrated apples for many generations. Cultivated for over 4,000 years, apples have often played a prominent role in festive occasions as well as in everyday life. The ancient Greeks used apples both ceremoniously (e.g., in weddings) and medicinally. Hippocrates, known as "the father of medicine," reportedly said, “Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food.” As Anna Lovett-Brown points out in her essay on the history of apples, "his most favored prescriptions for his patients included apples, dates and barley mush." The Romans also celebrated this nutritious and tasty fruit. Through cross-breeding and grafting, they developed its sweetness and increased its size, and spread it throughout Europe. They considered the apple a symbol of love and fertility, and fĂȘted Pomona, the goddess of the orchards, during this season of the year (on November 1). Apples also featured prominently in Samhain, the Celt's autumnal harvest celebration.

Apples are not native to North America (with the exception of the sour crabapple), but were brought here by the earliest European settlers and soon embraced by Native Americans, who cultivated many new varieties. By the mid-seventeenth century, apple orchards were spreading rapidly. Today, the U.S. is the second leading producer of apples in the world.

In continuing our own family's tradition of picking apples together each fall, then, we are following a long, culturally diverse line of predecessors. So what have we done with all those apples we picked? After my comedy-of-errors attempt to make a year's supply of applesauce a couple of apple-picking seasons ago, I foreswore ever trying that again. Instead, we've made sauteed apples with biscuits, apple turnovers, apple pancakes, and an "Apple Crisp Pie" I'd never tried before (pictured below). If you'd like to try it, you can find the recipe here. We also hope to make apple muffins and, of course, Aunt Tootie's Apple Cake (see my post from Friday, November 18, 2011). Mmmm mmmm.

I hope you get to enjoy some local apples and other autumn harvests this fall. There really is so very much to savor and be thankful for this time of year. All hail Pomona! 

After Apple-Picking

by Robert Frost
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.