The promise of the seasons

It’s going to be a good year for apples.

This isn’t some Old Farmer’s Almanac backwoods mysticism, and it’s not a metaphor. I’m looking out the window at my backyard apple tree, which gave us exactly jack nothing in 2016, and it’s weighed down with hundreds of little green pods. Come September, we’ll be filling bags and buckets with crisp golden orbs, and racing to clear up the ones that come thudding down into the lawn before the wasps can find them.

I’d like to think this year’s bumper crop has something to do with our annual ritual of wassailing the trees, a thing we do with a crew of friends in that dark and silent part of the year just after New Year’s. It’s not especially traditional — none of us are particularly well-versed in hoary old English folk customs — but we drive the dark away with lots of fire and singing and hard cider, and it scratches that old itch for ritual in a way the annual round of tinselly holiday parties never quite does.

More likely it’s just a year for apples. Somehow, with no help from us, the trees made it through spring’s capricious roller coaster of killing frosts and balmy days with blossoms intact. They had enough water to grow and thrive. Barring a sudden disaster, it will be a good year.


The last time we had a really good apple crop, in 2015, we banded together with a bunch of our local friends (and fellow wassailers) to take advantage of it. About a dozen of us, calling ourselves the Greater Hillcrest Cider Society, set out a plan to harvest, press, ferment and bottle a few hundred gallons of hard cider.

We gathered bushels upon bushels of gnarled, scabby apples from our own wild trees, and bought some more from a local farm for good measure. We trucked them all to the old Hubbell Farm in Kelly Corners, where we loaded them a bushel at a time into a 19th century apple press that takes up most of a three-story barn. The cider was golden-brown and glorious. We dosed it with champagne yeast and set it to ferment in a couple of big square tanks. A few months later, we racked the fermented cider, and held a party to bottle it up and distribute it amongst ourselves.

The freshly-bottled cider was clear, dry and delicious, with just a hint of fizz, and we drank it with gusto. But a few months after bottling, it started to take on a new character. At first, it was just a little off; nothing obvious, just a subtle funk. As the months passed, our crisp cider matured into a skunky, industrial solvent. Was it the temperature? The yeast? The timing of the racking? Something in the bottling process? Whatever the problem was, it was clear by late summer that the harvest we’d been hoping for was a bust.

Disaster can strike in a moment, but nature is full of slow-motion letdowns too. You can work with optimism and excitement all season long, only to stand by and watch the slow unraveling of all your hopeful prospects. And here we are getting into metaphor territory at last, because what my improbably fecund apple trees are reminding me of most this year is that we have been trying for a long time, a very very long time, to have another baby.

There have been so many seasons of tantalizing early promise, followed by eventual disappointment, that it is hard to imagine things turning out any other way, in the end. I am not sure how much longer we can keep holding up the weight of all of this unripened hope. It seems far crueler than up-front disappointment.

We have long since gotten past the stage of employing totems and charms and rituals in an effort to get nature to smile on us. The dark side of magical thinking is that when it doesn’t work, you feel responsible for whatever bad things befall you. You didn’t think positive enough, and your wife miscarried. Maybe you let a witch look at your apple tree.

I have been trying, badly and infrequently, to pray. Prayer doesn’t give you apples, or babies, or more time to keep playing the game. Some of us pray anyway — not because we think it will buy us more tickets in any great cosmic raffle of fortune, but because it focuses our minds on providence; it reminds us to be humble before uncertainty. At least, that’s what I’m in it for.

I’m not any better at praying than I am at enacting old English folk traditions. They’re both presumptuous and dated and more than a little embarrassing, especially in front of other people. But the world is large, and we are small, and it’s what we do.

It’s going to be a good year for apples.

Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord does know where we may go
To be merry another year
To blow well and to bear well
And so merry let us be
Let every man lift up his glass
And a health to the old apple tree