When you grow up in the country, you’re socialized to do things a little differently than in the city. First of all, locked doors are not the number one concern on your mind. Second, if you want to commence an activity on someone’s property such as fishing or picking up “those Bodark apples for a craft you’re doing with the Girl Scouts,” you just go knock on their door and ask. They can say no, but usually don’t. And, if you need to quickly cross or gain access to someone’s property then get right off again…well, it’s usually going to be fine unless there is a NO TRESPASSING sign hanging on their fence. You’ve seen them, right? Old tires, painted with white letters, some of them dripping so much the message is slightly illegible by the time they dry. Sometimes they read, “NO HUNTING.” That’s a different message. It means – “I might be okay with you walking across, but don’t shoot anything.”
Along with these “community area” boundaries comes the notion of timing. This is where my story gets started. I was conditioned, as was my friend Cathy, toward a keen sense of fruit tree spotting after having spent years with a family using that same instinctual radar. You begin to spot any random fruit tree or bush in the Spring. If it’s blooming, that’s immediately a check-mark in your head. If there was no hail or freeze after the actual spotting, another check mark. It’s almost like a game…you begin with your known inventory of potential crops and you work your way down as you notice: a) there was an extreme period with no rain; b) you see ladders setting up underneath the trees as the fruit gets ripe – meaning, they’ve been claimed; or, c) you observe from a safe distance that the tree has been taken over by hungry wasps, birds, or that all the fruit within picking distance has been reached by cattle in said pasture. Check, check, check.
This means that by the time a certain crop is ready, there may STILL be possibilities for knocking on the door of a neighbor asking, “Hey, are you going to pick all those crab apples? If not, I’d love to come over and fill a few buckets.” By the way, crab apple and sand plum jam are two of the most divine treasures our state has to offer. That beautiful rose-gold glow of the finished product is like a little bit of heaven on homemade bread all winter long.
Fruit tree spotting, I believe, needs an official pop culture title, like the “Storm Chasers” get. We wouldn’t need radars on our truck as much as a good database inside the cab. The project should include a map of the state, location pins of the various fruit types and potential prospects regarding the targeted crop.
Anyway, so…timing. My husband and I built a home about six years ago and of course I immediately go into my Fruit Tree Spotting radar mode over the next twelve months. There are crab apples at the entrance of Fairfax Golf Course, on the back side of the 9th hole on one of the Guthrie Cedar Valley courses there is a big group of Sand Plums (also on the fence at I-35 and Hefner Road), we have wild blackberries all over our lot as well as our neighbors property, there is a D’Anjou pear tree in an empty lot off Covell (which, by the way, is a free for all…the owners WANT people to take the fruit because it keeps the wasps away from their children), and there is a Jonathan Apple tree about 40 yards past the fence line in the pasture of a home ½ mile to my west. There are actually two apple trees out there, side by side. But for some reason, the younger medium-sized tree doesn’t always make every year. The massive, half-rotting, Jonathan apple tree does. And – I check it out as I drive by, every single day.
So there we were, see, two summers ago – sitting in the kitchen cooking something and I said to my friend, “You know, Cathy, I’ve been watching that Jonathan apple tree just down the road. The fruit is ripe and the cows have eaten the lower portion, but there are still apples in that tree. We’d have to climb it….” I looked sideways to see if she’s going to bite. I shouldn’t have wondered. She jumped on it – “Let’s go get ‘em!”
“Well,” I hesitated, “The problem is that the rent house on the farmer’s property is vacant right now and I don’t know his name. I haven’t seen him out on his tractor in a couple of days and the cattle have been moved to his lot adjacent to that section of land. I think that pond is getting low and they need water.” It was hot outside – extremely hot, averaging 90 degrees or higher every day.
Cathy knew what I was saying. I was telling her that: a) if they’re to be had, the apples must be harvested immediately; b) I don’t know how to ask the farmer – even though given the fact that he’s allowing his cattle to eat the apples, I’m assuming he’s not going to take them; and, c) I couldn’t get the information from the renter if I wanted to. She understood. If we were to go get the abandoned apples, we would have to trespass onto the property and take what rightfully wasn’t ours.
“Like I said…let’s go get ‘em!” she exclaimed, with even more energy than the first time. There we were, in the middle of my kitchen, plotting to break the law like a modern-day Thelma and Louise. On this adventure, however, I felt quite certain we wouldn’t be driving over a cliff together – at least, not literally. The metaphor did cross my mind as I pictured a policeman parking by the side of our truck on the road and calling us over for violation of private property.
Cue the Mission Impossible music. If you’re going on a covert op, you’ve got to be equipped. I found a 5-gallon bucket, got my knee-high rubber work boots (and Mick’s, for Cathy…the grass was waist-high in places), looked around the garage and decided I couldn’t really think of anything else. We packed into the truck and headed out. In hind sight, a ladder would have been helpful.
We arrived at the site and as I pulled the truck to the side of the road, I noticed that the apple tree was actually about fifty yards from the fence. Okay, so it was about sixty. The culvert was deep, and the barbed wire was in pretty good shape. “Great,” I mused. “We’re going to have to work a little harder than I thought. Oh, well…it won’t be that bad. We can get in and out of there in probably fifteen minutes or so.” As we neared the pasture the waist-high grass did remind me of another potential threat: snakes and ticks. I was glad we brought the rubber boots and reminded myself to have Cathy and I do a quick “tick-check” when we got back. You do this by having one person raise their arms and turn around slowly while the other makes an initial visual assessment. If you don’t see anything at first, you’re probably good. If there’s even one tiny horrible critter spotted on a shirt, arm, or other outer section of the body – then you go into deeper hunting mode (on yourself of course…there are personal boundaries when performing this task!). It’s not fun. I hate ticks.
We approached the fence, threw our supplies into the pasture, and wrestled just a bit with the barbed wire. Common barbed-wire fence courtesy requires that the first person step on the bottom two wires, pushing down with their foot, and raising the third wire up as far as they can, thus creating the “door” to the property. One goes through, turns around and reciprocates for the person still on the other side. This is a tried and true unwritten law of the prairie – don’t you forget it.
With only a couple of snags on the back sides of our shirts, we grab the bucket and head toward the tree. We probably looked drunk from the road. The pasture was rough, there were hidden little gopher holes around, there was underbrush that kept grabbing our ankles and the tufts of Love grass were pretty treacherous. I was out of pasture-walking practice and so was Cathy. We were halfway to the tree when I looked down to check my footing and saw the knees and thighs of my jeans covered with stick tights. “Stellar,” I thought. I hadn’t seen ticks, and had yet to see snakes…but stick tights meant that the apples immediately became more valuable. They’d better be good in exchange for what was sure to be more than an hour picking those things out of our socks and off our jeans. The sun felt hotter, my adventurous mood dulled just a bit and I felt the first trickle of sweat roll down my back. Okay, so it was really hot out there. We pressed on.
We reached the tree and a quick calculation in my head helped me arrive at the assumption that we may have been parked on the side of the road for about five minutes thus far. In some parts of the country, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but we have a neighbor issue. We have four delightful “police families” who live within one-half mile of our house, and they all drive down this road. They know me, and they know I don’t own this land. Whether they drive by…AND, would stop or not was the calculated risk we were taking at that point. I hadn’t told Cathy about my police neighbors. I start talking rapidly, “Okay, so here we are…how are we going to do this?” I don’t think Cathy noticed – or perhaps she thought I was out of breath. She’s a good friend, but why bother her with the gory details of my calculated risk factoring?
As we looked up at the tree, the apples appeared twice as high as they did from the road. We also noticed the tree had twice as much rotting material as we had thought. A road-side view can evidently be very deceiving. We looked around the base of the tree and found a tool. It was a long branch with a fork at the end. We decided to use the branch as our “apple popping-off-the-tree” tool. Brilliant! Cathy began popping off apples and I began retrieving. I don’t know how hard her job was – the tool was a really long branch, and getting the fork at the exact spot for leverage against the fruit must have been difficult. I will say, however, that FINDING the apples that had been sling-shotted 30 or 40 feet into waist-high grass wasn’t really that easy either. I lost a few. The apples were becoming more precious with every minute that passed and to lose even one required a 5-second mourning ceremony each time. We worked about ten or fifteen minutes and I kept checking the road. All clear. But the reachable fruit was also clearing as well. We only had about eight apples (we had harvested several only to find they were rotten) and it was time to rethink our strategy.
Cathy decided to climb the tree. I, of course, thought that was a grand idea. Her out-loud planning included getting into the main cradle of the tree, about four feet higher than she currently stood, and then using her tool to continue the harvesting strategy. I would remain the “puppy,” running after the apples with my still-eager mood. I had begun celebrating by that point. Each time I found one in the tall grass I’d yell, “I GOT IIIIIT!” Why give up that role?
We approached the trunk to assess just how Cathy was going to get into the cradle and had a momentary pause. There was nothing to grab onto, and it was a little higher than we thought. Notice the pattern here? Tree further…apples less…trunk cradle higher…my notorious optimism was getting on my nerves at this point. So I suggest, “Okay – why don’t you just grab onto that lower branch, try to get your knee up into the cradle and sort of step on my back and use me as a stool?” She agreed. I assumed a “Buck Buck” position (see picture) on the trunk, and she began to approach the tree. I was 45 years old, Cathy was 48. I can’t even imagine what this scene must have looked like from outside the situation. Showers of rotten branches and bark rattled down on top of me while she found her balance…it seemed that every time she grabbed a branch or tried to find a foothold, the spot was soft and rotting. She finally got settled in, I felt I could leave my Buck Buck post, and I handed her the tool.
We got at least six or seven more apples this time, and they were in better condition. Evidently, the “high hanging fruit” isn’t just a metaphor. Occasionally, a small shower of rotting wood would come down as Cathy worked her way around the territory, but for the most part things were okay. However, our five gallon bucket looked fairly empty. Twelve apples. We were both sweating profusely, the odds of a police driving by were increasing, and our pay-off wasn’t nearly where it needed to be. She decided to go higher. I began to get worried.
She was standing in the cradle at this point, body leaning out over one of the larger portions of the forked trunk and reaching with one hand trying to navigate the tool. She got three more. We were at fifteen. At one point she lost her balance because a rotting branch gave way and I was ready to call it quits. Broken bones are never worth contraband apples…my logic was returning, at least at some level. However, I think Cathy had decided to dig in. “I really think if I turn around, I could get a couple more. Hang on…” She popped off two more. I got them. They were beautiful. If the apples had not been so pretty, she probably would not have gone for number eighteen. She thought she needed to change her position and decided to sort of go around the other trunk of the main fork off the cradle. I decide to take up a position of “safety girl” under her maneuvering because at this point her rubber boots were slipping and I could hear her grunts and groans vocally punctuating the struggle.
I moved into position and told her, “You might need to step back down onto me again and then go around the other side?” We thought out loud for a bit then she finally readied to make her move. Cathy had decided to grab the main trunk she was leaning on, sort of swing her body around under it, and then lay over the other side and rebalance. I wasn’t really questioning the common sense of all this – I was wrapped up in the problem solving. I thought the idea had merit.
Cathy prepped for her move and was repositioning when all of a sudden I heard a loud noise, felt a strong vibration and started getting showered with dead tree material all at the same time. The place where she was resting her weight had given way. She was on her way down and I instinctively braced to break her fall in order to keep her from completely hitting the pasture floor full force. This all happened in a split-second and although I felt her body start to fall…well, as suddenly as the avalanche started – it stopped. Material was still falling and I was trying to look up without blinding myself. I only felt about 30 or so pounds of her weight and didn’t understand. I was confused. There was no crash…just silence. I grabbed her leg that was on my shoulder to steady her and realized her body was swinging to and fro. What the hey? The rain of tree bark had stopped, and I was on “ground level” gripping her leg, looking around for the rest of her body weight. A split second of silence takes place then I hear her voice above me ring out, “Huh!?…Well, would you look at that?!”
A two-inch “hook” from a broken off branch had caught the front and center portion of Cathy’s bra on her way down and was now holding almost all her body-weight, cartoon style, as she swung there in suspense. I could almost hear the “see-saw” sound of a violin from the Bugs Bunny era T.V. genre. Another pause took place before we started laughing nervously. Ha! Saved by the bra! Cool! I helped her get a little better footing so she could lift herself up and off the tree hook. Then, I helped her get OUT of the tree.
As we were dusting ourselves off and trying to calm our shaking legs, I noticed a beautiful apple right at our feet. Perhaps the 5.5 Rector scale vibration brought it down…who knows. I picked it up and placed it with the others. Eighteen small Jonathan apples. There wasn’t going to be five gallons. There wasn’t going to be one gallon. We were done. Broken bones are not worth the crop, right?
Once trauma wears off, there’s always the joke. “What brand of bra is that, Cathy? I think I need one of those! Does Victoria Secret come in industrialized tree-climbing strength? Maybe we should tell the rock climbers to pack extra bras!?…” You know…stuff like that. We headed toward the truck, collecting another thousand stick tights on our return journey.
We got home, pulled off the stick tights, rid the bucket of any insects and brought the apples inside. We cut one in half and ate it. WOWzers! Brilliant white crisp warm sweet-sour deliciousness. Amazing. Our mood lifted. If we split them between us there would only be eight each, after we ate one more. We quickly washed the fruit and pondered. I proposed, “What do you say we call our husbands, have them pick up some vanilla bean ice cream, and we’ll make some fresh apple topping?” Sold. Didn’t even have to beg. Cathy had already grabbed a knife and gotten to work before I had dried off the last apple.
That evening, as we sat down at the table to enjoy the incredible goodness of the one meal we were going to get out of all that work, we reflected upon our adventure. We should probably avoid that tree next year. Check. We’ll need to find a new Jonathan tree to glean (the topping was pure bliss). Check. And, we’ll definitely wear strong bras when we do set out on our next adventure. Check, check, check.
And, we’ll make sure to ASK the owner next time we go. Double check.