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An orchard revelation

I read the other day of a booklet, offered by a local bank, that explains how you can shrug off the urban corporate life and find happiness as a rural craftsman. As I recall, it laid out schemes for engaging profitably in pottery, weaving, furniture-making, or any of a dozen other occupations happily performed beside a wood stove five miles from a one-horse town. As usual, it caught me with my mental filing cabinet open to the folder labeled Great Bucolic Escapes -- a folder which, it seems, everyone has in one form or another. I remember talking to a British Steel executive, who longed to throw it all up and retire to the Yorkshire Dales as a local postman. The world is rich with Ph.d.'s who dream of running dairy farms, or opening white-water-canoeing schools, or repairing antique clocks. My folder, among the orts and snippets of my pastoral reveries, contains one compelling and no doubt rather silly plan. It urges me to throw caution to the wind and buy an orchard.

For I confess that I have always been an applephile. Not the brassy, public sort, who declaims upon the fine distinctions between Cortlands and McIntoshes and Northern Spies. Nor the connoisseur sort, who with eyes shut in a Limburger factory could still taste the difference between a French Golden Delicious and its South African counterpart. I'm not even the insatiable consumer sort -- like my wife, who, as a student, used to line up five apples on her desk and systematically devour them over trigonometric proofs and the second declension. I'm the quiet sort. I don't mind eating apples, of course. But in fact I don't often go out of my way for them. I simply like to look at them, think about them, companion with them. They strike me, as they must have struck Johnny Appleseed, as the perfect fruit. The trees blossom in Oriental profusion in the spring, are green and shady in summer, bear so much fruit in the fall that nobody worries about the punky ones, and are elegant compositions of line and space against a winter sky. They fill the world's kitchens with pies, sauces, butters, pandowdies, crisps, cobblers, turnovers, and juices. Unadorned, they stand as nature's answer to fast foods, the original portable, pocket-size meal. Even the wood is a fine, rich resource for cabinetry, or yields up a slow-burning, nearly ashless fireplace log.

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I say all this simply to suggest the depth of the well into which, the other day, a friend unwittingly dropped the pebble of an invitation. "We're taking the children out to pick apples," he innocently ventured, "and we'd love to have you join us." It was, you'll appreciate, the sort of offer I was temperamentally incapable of refusing. I tried, in fact, to put up a show of resistance: caught away from home over a holiday weekend, I had sworn myself to use the time to good advantage, reading and writing, rearranging my energies, eschewing relaxation in favor of sober diligence. I even entered my demurral along those lines: I would, I said, wait and see.

What did me in, of course, was the apples. Had he said "raspberries" or "pumpkins," my resolution would have stood like marble. In fact, however, the most engaging novel could not have kept me at home that day. He had Watergated my secret files thrown open the cherished folder, and whitemailed me into a most willing submission.

So it was that we set out for a day of blue skies, lush orchards, and children frolicking on the greensward. Or so we thought. As it happened, the day had the makings of a Cheaper-by-the-Dozen disaster. It was a holiday. The hamburger stand we found was kidful and screaming at lunchtime. It was cold. We got lost. The orchard, which last year had had exquisite home-made donuts and cider and only a basketful of customers, had this year been written up in the local press. By the time we arrived, it had been locusted clean by swarms of gleaners -- and the local donut-makers had gone out of business. There weren't enough picking-sticks --contraptions for jiggling apples gently from remote branches -- to go around. The nearby reservoir, a notable beauty spot, was a mere ring of rocks and much after a recent drought. Even the two dogs, not having hammered out a manageable detente, had to be kept apart.

Or so a pessimist would have said. In fact, it was one of those days in which delight flies in the face of experience. I wandered joyously under the boughs, catching glimpses of scrabling children and flailing sticks, smelling the rich ferment of the windfalls and feeling altogether liberated. I felt like somebody's grandfather, smiling benignly over the hair-tearing antics of the children and utterly devoid of worries.

I've thought of that day many times since --seemed misplaced, the overall feeling could nevertheless have been so right. I think it has to do with the kind of freedom that comes from giving up, not the urban corporate life, but the kinds of personal responsibilities that come with it. I was living a life wholly beyond my own willful control: I was at the mercy of their driving, their timing, and their style. I was entirely constrained --and there is nothing like constraint to breed patience.

Now, there's nothing new in that perception -- that adversity tempers, that the most apparently encumbering circumstances foster a salutary resignation. What struck me afresh, however, was the recognition that, for those hours, I had in fact escaped. Fleeing an inward and self-imposed nine-to-fiveism, I had stumbled upon an equally inward and far more pleasant pastureland -- not by what I had done, but in fact by what I had not done. I had not gotten enmeshed. I had not wrenched the day into the mold of personal influence. I had simply thrown in the sponge, taken up a place by the wood stove of quiet simplicity, become the rural postman of a happily detached message.

Not that I am unaware of the dangers implicit in all I have said. I have visions of my elementary school teachers rising in a chorus to chant out a prophecy of doom on my aimless ways. I see the ravens of indolence and apathy perched, as Poe would have it, above my chamber door. Properly chastened, I retreat to the world of the productive. But with a little different perspective , I guess: with a feeling that the pathway to escape winds inward, that patience is self-defined, and that a love of apples -- or whatever, for each of us, stands for apples --smooths whatever petty roilings the world can stir up.

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I don't suppose I'll close the folder. But I know where the orchard is.

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