THE LAST APPLE
Autumn sharpens one’s imagination. Days are filled with transition. The weather teases — do we chance leaving the tomatoes on the vine one more day? Was it frost last night, or nearly frost? When will the leaves turn? Will they be mostly golden or red or brown this year? Day to day, transition comes, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a burst. Some things end, some things anticipate a spring.
This year, again, I have been planing bulbs (300 of them in the last week). Tulips, daffodils, allium. I know better, especially setting those tulips in bed for the winter, as the deer find them irresistible in the spring. I foolishly calculate that if 100 bulbs are set this fall, maybe 50 will survive, especially if I spred some deer repellent nearby next spring. Okay, so sign me up as an eternal optimist! Still, there is something compelling about autumn. A thinking person and/or a person of faith will see this as a time for hope… or, so I tell myself.
Each fall I think of the haunting passage written by E. B. White who described his wife Katherine, as she aged, still kneeling each fall to plant bulbs. He wrote: “As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical in her bedraggled appearance… her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.” [Forward in Katherine S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden, Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.]
I’m with Kathrine White — calmly plotting the resurrection, indeed. As I plant bulbs and trees I am aware that I may or may not be around to enjoy them 15 or 20 years hence — but my prayer is that someone will benefit and thereby be reminded of the beauty and promise found in these autumn days.
This year I also planted trees — decorative plum, pear and magnolia. They stand all along the driveway. And there were three apple and two cherry trees planted last spring. I find I have to protect them all from the deer, who like to munch on the apple or cherry tree leaves or, in the case of the other trees, the bucks will come and scar the trunks during rutting season.
We lost the old apple tree in the front yard this fall. A friend who knows about such things tells me the tree was approaching its 100th year… but we watched as it slowly faded in health over the past three years. Someone, a century or so ago planted this apple tree; perhaps, like me, hoping it would be appreciated by another in a distant future. This fall the time had come; we had to cut that tree down. Sad, as the old apple tree in the front of the house was one of the features we loved when we bought the place three years ago.
In mid-September, walking past the tree, I noticed one last apple hanging up among the few branches still clinging to life. (For those of you wondering, I took a cutting off that branch, in the hope I might plant it next spring — yes, my hope springs eternal!) The tree is now down, the wood cleared and stump ground up. That last apple — tart and memorable — has now been eaten and enjoyed. In my imagination, that last apple lingers, remaining for me as an autumn metaphor.
As my seventieth birthday approaches on the cusp of a New Year, I still think of myself as young. I do this even when I am sometimes offered the “senior discount.” And this without my even asking! More and more often, when speaking of friends, I add the words “of blessed memory” upon mentioning their names. Time passes, life’s autumn season arrives. Thankfully it does not mean that imagination disappears.
It is not only friends who have passed on. I find institutions and organizational cultures are often “of blessed memory.” Some gifts of courage and quality of thought I saw in the life of others seem to have evaporated in recent decades. I confess to grieving the loss of courage and imagination among many who lead my denomination, the United Methodist Church.
It is strange to go to denominational gatherings and realize that there is little appetite or awareness of the need to speak prophetically on matters of justice. In this early autumn season of my life, when I look at Indiana United Methodism at least, it is easy to feel like I am one of the last apples.
(Thankfully there are a few other ‘last apples’ around, but too few. Hopefully we are not the “bad apples” as some now seeking to reform United Methodism seem prone to suggest. Please know that I am all too aware of the inadequacies that were abundant in earlier generations. I remember the bigotries and peevishness of some laity, clergy and denominational leaders — I remember these well. I also remember courageous bishops and pastors who spoke prophetically about racism, war and peace, sexism and economic injustice.)
Today, few wise and clarion voices are speaking. The denomination is knotted up a homophobic dystrophy. There is silence. Or worse, we find a continuation of bigotry and exclusion toward gay and lesbian folks, lay and clergy. There is more — there is too often silence regarding issues of economic injustice or environmental destruction. In May 2016, the denomination will join in another General Conference — signs are not encouraging. In Indiana, I find so-called United Methodists have little in common with those who provided a place for the prophetic tradition over the past century.
Maybe the old tree has been removed, chopped down, and I missed the felling of it. Maybe. There is an old saying the “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” I wonder. Sometimes I look around and think the whole orchard has been moved or chopped down. What was once Methodism has become something wholly different. Perhaps this new orchard is one of persimmons or crab apples. I am surprised by the way a pathetic, poorly articulated and distorted Calvinism (dividing the world into the “saved and the fallen” with no hope for transformation or renewal) has replaced the Wesleyan vision of redemption and perfect love.
Even so, I can’t stop kneeling and planting the bulbs — and trees — of the future. I will still try to take cuttings from the old tree and see if these can be brought to life — and perhaps appreciated by someone 100 years from now. Maybe I am not among the last apples after all.