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Sometimes life’s disappointments teach the greatest lessons of hope, and that’s exactly what happened at our homestead on a particular day in June 2007. It involves what’s probably the oldest living thing on our property, a legendary apple tree we call the “Old Man Tree.”
The fateful day was bright and clear until about 2 p.m., when sinister greenish-black clouds rolled in from the west. We don’t get tornadoes up as far north as Manitoulin Island, Canada, but this wind might as well have been one. Century-old barns came down, roads remained blocked for days because of broken trees, and entire homes were damaged as windows gave way under pressure of the wind, letting driven rain soak everything.
The storm struck in less than a minute, and after getting my kids down into our limestone root cellar, I raced around outside battening down everything that might blow away. Just as I was running for the root cellar myself I noticed a young maple tree bent over double in the wind. Just that very morning I’d removed the support stakes from this 10-year-old tree, figuring that it was now strong enough to stand on its own. I spent the rest of the storm standing next to that tree, holding it up against the wind. It was perhaps the longest 15 minutes of my life. I still remember a robin’s nest blown down next to my feet while I was holding the maple, the young ones never to survive the fall and the rain.
When things finally got quiet, I surveyed the damage and found that the Old Man Tree had suffered a seemingly fatal blow. The wind had split the trunk, and about 80 percent of it was now severed from the ground, with all but one measly branch still attached to the remaining wisp of a trunk. Our outhouse was ruined, shade trees were heavily damaged, my hay elevator had blown down and broken irreparably, and the door had blown off our chicken house. All this was bad enough, but losing the Old Man Tree was like losing family.
One of our old neighbours, a man named Ivan Bailey, was born in 1909 and had lived on the property his whole life, and even Ivan could remember picking apples from the Old Man Tree as a boy. As far as I could tell, it was a Maiden’s Blush variety, and folklore had it that a traveling salesman offered these especially hardy trees to the settlers in our township in the 1880s and '90s. It’s said that the legendary hardiness of the old Manitoulin apple trees came from being grafted onto wild ironwood root stock. I don’t know if this is even horticulturally possible, but I do know that Manitoulin Island isn’t exactly the tropics, yet these ancient apple trees thrive. They hardly have any pest damage even without spray, and they’re vigorous enough that they’ve gone wild and now populate the edges of roads and fields wherever deer drop their seeds.
As valued a member of the homestead as the Old Man Tree was, it was history now. If only I’d pruned it more heavily, perhaps the trunk could have withstood the wind. Or maybe I should have braced the trunk with threaded rods, nuts and washers, as I’d done for other trees. All this went through my mind as I was cutting up the fallen branches, laden as they were with young apples. When all that remained was to nip off the bit of trunk still standing with its one, wispy branch, I stopped for a second. It was, I see now, a pivotal moment.
My urge to be tidy and wipe away all traces of the pain of the Old Man Tree’s loss was strong, and it had control of the trigger finger on the throttle of the saw. But then, hope stepped in. Why kill what remains of this old icon of our homestead? Doesn’t an apple tree that’s borne fruit for more than 100 years deserve one last chance?
I cleaned up the downed branches and broken trunk, then let the Old Man Tree show me what it was made of. And what happened over the next few years is where the lesson of the Old Man Tree comes from.
That one wisp of a trunk with its one wisp of a branch grew and thrived like I’ve never seen any apple tree do before. Where the Old Man Tree always used to give medium-sized apples at best, now all the wisdom and power of a full root system made the fruit surge in size, twice as big as usual. The fruit was less in number, but much better in quality and sweetness. And that great old tree, seemingly destined for nothing more than the burning pile, still preserves its ember of life today, pumping out wonderful old-time apples. We’ve enjoyed countless homestead apple pies from that tree, and all the kids here know exactly how the Old Man Tree stands for much more than just the world’s best organic apples.
The biggest blessing of the Old Man Tree isn’t just fruit, but rather an idea. The thing I’ll always remember about it is this: The old, the ugly, the much-less-than perfect things in this life can, and often do, deliver the things of greatest value. So often in life it’s the stone that the builders reject that becomes the all-important cornerstone. We just need to have eyes to see, and the patience to let wisdom and age and experience have its way.
Steve Maxwell and his family have homesteaded on Manitoulin Island since 1985. You can learn more about Steve’s mortgage-free homestead story at his Real Rural Life blog.