“What if Earth be but the shadow of Heaven
and things therein – each other like, more than on Earth is thought?”
—John Milton, Paradise Lost 5.574-6
I grew up watching my father eat apples straight off the trees. His mouth wide, he’d take one giant bite, tearing the skin, exposing the belly, carving out one side of the round, crimson masterpiece with the sharp of his teeth. Then, baring the pearl white of the apple’s insides, and operating more out of instinct than reason, he’d crank his shoulder back and toss the fruit a few rows behind him, an offering of half-eaten McIntosh, Ida Reds, Galas, Spys.
We could afford this. They were ours.
We could take only one bite and throw it down, throw it back. We had no reason to finish every bite, to eat all the way to the core, to the seeds.
Grandpa’s last season on the orchard coincided with my freshman year in college, when I first studied Paradise Lost. I remember the exact moment of that survey literature class — sitting near the window, the leaves changing on the trees outside, the steady monotone of the professor’s lecture — when I made the connection that the Hebrew word for orchard is paradise. My notebook sprawled in front of me, my feverish note-taking hands suddenly linking the ancient and the personal. The heavy lightness of movement from childhood experience to adult revelation taking root: our family’s trees were as much a story as a place.
We called it Grandpa’s Orchard, though technically the 200 acres of apples (plus 50-some acres of peaches, cherries, and plums) never really belonged to us, never belonged to Grandpa. In the fall of 1954, recently married and working as a milkman, Grandpa stumbled on a side job picking apples at Bos Brothers Orchards. Impressed by his work ethic, later that winter Grandpa was offered a part-time role as assistant manager and invited to move Grandma and their one-year-old son, my uncle, onto the farm. Their olive green, two-story farmhouse stood guard at the main entrance, just 50 feet and a driveway separating them from the home of Gerald and Jennie Bos, the orchard’s owners.
Gerald had a degree in horticulture from Michigan State University. Grandpa had no formal education past the eighth grade. The youngest of six, his father had died when he was four years-old, so when his older brothers left to serve in World War II, he quit school to run his family’s small farm and take care of his mother. After the war, Grandpa’s brothers and their wives both moved back into the farmhouse with their mom, and Grandpa and Grandma married and rented a place until they were offered a permanent home on the orchard.
Just six months after they moved in, Gerald died of a sudden heart attack, and Grandpa was instantly promoted to full-time manager, while Jennie became his supervisor, mainly from the stoop on the front porch where she liked to holler out directions. Grandpa sold his milk route and inherited the bulk of the work without any formal training, learning the art and industry of agriculture as he went. He attended a few classes when offered nearby and had a symbiotic relationship with Bob, the salesman who supplied him the pesticides used to prevent insects and Apple Scab. When it rained, the farmhouse phone would ring with a warning on the other end: “Get your butt out there and spray those trees.”
My dad and his four siblings were raised in the green farmhouse, and the place was always Grandpa’s Orchard to us, even if the deed never included his name. He was the one who, for forty-two autumns nurtured and harvested 65,000 bushels of apples sold fresh to eat or hauled away to become sauce, cider, pie filling, or vinegar. He was the one who made room for his sons, daughters, and grandkids on the worn, vinyl truck seat next to him, working the stick shift near our knees, as he delivered apples around the state. He was the one who would rush back out to the barn to fix a tractor after dinner or who would don his warm winter gloves and cotton canvas jacket for pruning during March’s muddy, grey days.
Jennie, who lived to be 91, passed the ownership on to her adult children, and in 1998, they decided to close the orchard, sell the land to developers, and take their inheritance. Grandpa had earned his retirement, including a slice of land just up the hill and around the corner from their old place.
The owners auctioned the farm during my first year of college, during the end of my Paradise-Lost-freshman-year. I wasn’t home, but the murky photographs and stories I’ve been told about that day have melded into my memory and tricked me into believing I witnessed it all first-hand.
Near the biggest barn, just down the hill from the farmhouse, a crowd gathered. The April trees, just on the cusp of blossoming, spread out on the horizon. The auctioneer’s voice was like the call of a rooster among the chatter of hens. Farmers from miles around (and wannabes without calluses on their hands or dirt under their fingernails) milled about, dressed in dark blue jeans with flat-billed caps. My family teetered up on the hill, making small talk and eating barbecue sandwiches and potato chips from a food truck that had pulled up. Suddenly spectators in their own domain, they watched as the red International, the hi-lo, the wooden apple crates stamped with the name of the farm were bargained off, one-by-one, to the highest bidder. Grandpa, still in the middle of the action, climbed into each tractor and truck that was sold, starting up the hoarse old engines as the auctioneer would jump up on the sideboard and chant out numbers until the sale was final. Then, he’d hop down as Grandpa shifted each machine into gear and took one last drive up the hill to hand the keys over to the new owners.
Each sale a reminder: none of this was ever really ours.
The farmyard left empty, the summer and the fall came and Grandpa, though still living just around the corner and up the hill, watched out his window, and let it all go to waste. Any apples that managed to survive without his care were left to rot on branches, their poisonous seeds buried deep inside.
Though official farm operations went dormant, my family never went far. My parents and three of my aunts and uncles managed to buy parcels of land that surrounded that same square-mile country block. The orchard remained the center.
And my dad — who knows no other way to spend his free time than working on the farm — began to plant apple trees on nearly every available inch of his land, acres he purchased bordering the original orchard. For a few years, until his young trees were ready to bear fruit, he rented a few acres of the old land and its trees, coaxing life and fruit from a corner of Grandpa’s farm for a few more years.
Two decades later, the old orchard now bulldozed and burned, the newly planted trees on their property allow my parents to run a hobby farm. I rarely hear them dream of a retirement that includes sitting still on a beach somewhere. Dad spends his days in an office job wearing a tie, which he hurriedly exchanges for work clothes as soon as he comes through the door, working well beyond sunset on fall evenings. He refuses to let go of his second shift: picking, sorting, and reclaiming what he refuses to be lost.
Though the April he turned 60 included an emergency open-heart surgery and words from doctors like “widowmaker” and “lucky,” you could find him climbing trees that same September, just five months later. Willing to carry a lighter picking sack, willing to empty the apples into their boxes on the back of the trailer a little more often, but unwilling to hire any extra help, to allow strangers to take down his apples from his trees.
On fall nights and weekends, that’s where we find him. I stop by, never even making it up the long driveway to the house. Instead, I pull my car into a row of trees and let my boys climb out to pick a few with Papa. He is good-natured and lets the kids help, sturdies the wooden ladder as they climb to pick next to him, but as they get older he reminds them: twist, don’t pull. Don’t force separation from the branch where next year’s buds are already beginning to form. This year’s fruit shouldn’t serve as a sacrifice for next year’s.
On weekdays, Dad leaves for the office each morning, while mom is sequestered to farm. The face of the operation, she handles all the sales in the barn adjacent to their house. Formerly a horse barn, my parents removed the old stalls, poured fresh cement, and added a cider mill and hand painted murals to the walls. Always dressed for company with shoes that color-coordinate with the rest of her outfit, Mom manages to sort apples and haul crates without ever getting her shirt dirty. “Just living my husband’s dream,” she tells customers matter-of-factly as she offers to lug bushels of apples to their cars. “This orchard business gets in your blood.” During a good harvest year, she keeps the sales room filled to the brim, heading out back to the workrooms and storage coolers to sort, polish, and re-fill empty baskets between customers. As someone appears in the doorway, an alarm buzzes, and she hurries to the saleroom to meet them, making recommendations about the best varieties based on what’s available fresh off the trees: Cortlands and Northern Spies for pie, seconds of McIntosh for sauce, Galas for lunch boxes. When I stop by to check in, to bring some apples home to make Grandma’s Apple Crisp recipe, I grow weary of those who take twenty minutes to debate what tiny quarter peck of apples to buy, but she patiently offers taste-tests and personal preferences. Knowing the long journey from blossoms to baskets, I feel nearly offended with fussiness, shaking my head at someone who can’t eat around a blemish or try a new variety. I’m ruined by the real thing, can’t stomach a bite of those pristine-looking, waxy apples purchased in a plastic bag at the grocery store.
My dad shakes his head at people who try to grow a few apples in their backyards. He knows it’s not that simple, knows that without devotion, without giving up just about every other hobby you have, you won’t produce quality fruit. He chuckles as he remembers more wisdom passed on to him from his years as an apprentice on the orchard. When someone calls to troubleshoot and solicit advice on an apple tree they’ve just planted in their yard, he tells them this: “Drive to the local hardware store, get a saw, cut your tree down, and buy your apples from me.”
Grandpa died three years ago, and Grandma is a few months from 90. She still remains in her house, looking out over what used to be their orchard, the old barns standing like skeletons in the distance. “It was a good place to raise kids,” she told me last time I took her out for lunch. I had to lean over to cut her sandwich for her, and she didn’t like it a bit. She refused to let me pay for her.
A few cherry trees are left on the hill behind her home, trees that Grandpa cared for while he still could, before his stroke. I remember the spring he planted them, when he winked at me and said, “I’ll probably be dead by the time they get any fruit.” He cared for them a few years and allowed U-Pick on long, hot July days. He’d pull up a faded lawn chair next to a picnic table on his hill and people watch, while accumulating a little extra cash for vacation the next winter. “Florida money,” he called it. When asked what her favorite years were, Grandma replied: “My 60s. Grandpa didn’t work as much.”
After Grandpa died, Grandma sectioned off another piece of their land and sold it to my brother. The new house he’s building, which doesn’t yet have its siding, looks over Grandma’s place, over the old farm. He’s already excavated a spot for the apple trees he’ll plant.
As a teacher and daughter of apple growers, the arrival of fall always stings. I’m a summer person, ever grateful for a lighter calendar, ever grateful when Michigan finds a way to redeem itself after a harsh, grey winter with sunny days and a sparkling lake. Summer is light and easy, carefree; it doesn’t carry September’s weight. For me, the turn of the calendar from July to August, then August to September is bittersweet. Fall is beautiful, but it carries connotations of endings, of letting go, of releasing, of collapse. Fall, like farming, involves fundamental risk. Whether falling down the stairs or falling in love, pain is inevitable. Without the Fall, there is no differentiation between dark and light, beauty and bitterness, joy and shame, good and evil.
Perhaps that’s why, with each passing season, with each fading summer, I find myself leaning in a bit closer. As I watch my three young sons playing on the farm, picking apples, helping to fill gallon jugs with fresh cider, or riding the tractor with their Papa, I remember climbing onto the tractor with my Grandpa, balancing on his lap, his left arm gripping tight around my waist as he shifted gears with his right. Driving past the empty fields that once held Grandpa’s trees, I can still feel again the cold bed of the pickup against my back as we piled into the back to go for Sunday rides — aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers crowded into the back of the cab, bracing ourselves as we traveled uneven two-tracks, ducking under low-hanging branches. Carrying a gallon of cider from my parent’s salesroom, I’m aware of how my muscles have memorized the heaviness of the jugs my sister and I used to carry out of the old salesroom for customers, the foggy sides wiped dry with paper towels, and the quarter tips slipped into our small hands.
The dormant tangle of pruned branches under the grey winter sky, spring’s delicate blossoms constantly under threat of the freezing dark of night, the slow swelling of fruit in the summer, the glad weight of apples hanging heavy in the fall — each season I take photograph after photograph of the same scenes.
Common sense tells us that nature runs on a continuous loop. Yet, we never really know when things might swerve off in a different direction. We never know when spring’s cruel frost could kill every blossom, when summer’s hail could pelt and assault the tiny green orbs growing quietly on the trees, when land could be sold from under its caretakers to make way for a new subdivision. We never know when the farmer, walking hand-in-hand with providence, glancing back, remembering what was, moving into the freedom of the new world before him could be escorted from his Eden. We never know when he might wander into a place that doesn’t require his constant maintenance, his daily care, his tired, dirty hands.
As long as my dad’s apples still hang on the trees, as long as I watch him perform his taste tests, tossing barely-bitten apples behind him, I’ll keep repeating the words I wrote late at night in my college dorm room nearly two decades ago: the miraculous can be so close to mundane that we often miss it. A shadow of earth or a shadow of heaven? Perhaps we’re better off without the knowledge of the difference.
Dana VanderLugt is a middle school English teacher and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her poetry is published in Seeding the Snow, a journal of women’s writing and artwork that celebrates the Midwestern landscape. Several of Dana’s essays appear in Perspective Magazine‘s blog, The 12.