Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Little Peach Tree That Could

Peach blossoms on the elderly tree in my mother's yard
Heard County, Georgia—4 March 2012

I like trees because they seem to be more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.
—Willa Cather

My great-grandfather planted this dwarf peach tree in the early 1940s. By the late 1950s, when my mother was old enough to remember the family's yearly trips South from Michigan, the tree was bearing heavily every year.

Pap would slice up fresh peaches, and Grandma Edith would make homemade ice cream. When Mom moved down here in 1969, she first lived with Pap and Grandma before she got an apartment in town. The little peach tree was still producing as many peaches as the three of them could eat (which was a lot).

In 1988, Mom moved back to the old home place. By that time, the peach tree was just about dead. Sap ran from the peach-borer holes along its trunk. Ice storms had broken off parts of the tree, leaving about half of it still upright and struggling. The kind thing to do, she reckoned, would be to just cut it down. No sense in letting it suffer. It had served its purpose, and now it was time to plant something new. 

But the saw stayed in the shed, far from the beleaguered little peach tree. Mom couldn't stand to cut it down when it was still half-alive, or even a quarter alive. "When it's finally dead, I'll cut it," she kept saying. "We'll just mow around it in the meantime." Which we did. Mom mulched it, pruned away the branches split by the weight of snow and ice, sprayed for insects, watered it during droughts. For a dying tree, this one was getting a lot of care.

Year after year, the little tree hung on. Every spring, the pink blossoms appeared. By early summer, fuzzy green baby peaches the size of jelly beans dotted the branches. By July 4th, the baby peaches would be rotting on the ground, felled by some fungus or insect predator. For almost 20 years, we had hoped for peaches, and it was slowly dawning on me that this was  not going to happen.

"Mom," I said, "it's about your peach tree." 

It was a spring day in 2003. She and my stepfather were rebuilding the front porch. I was standing nearby, useless with a hammer but wanting to be part of the action anyway.

"I know," she groaned. "But I'm giving it one more chance. After that, it's coming down."

And as usual, the blossoms gave way to fuzzy green baby peaches.

About 1" long and 1/2" wide...
(25 April 2010)

The difference this time was that the baby peaches stayed on the tree. And grew. And grew. And ripened. And for the first time in nearly 40 years, we had peaches.

I felt badly knowing I had been hoping we could cut down the elderly little peach tree. I had doubted it, and it had come back—perhaps to prove us wrong, but more likely because that's just what trees do. This lonely, gnarled little tree suddenly bore half a bushel of peaches just because.

That summer, we had the best homemade peach ice cream and the best homemade peach cobbler I have ever tasted. And every summer since 2003, the little tree had managed to put out at least five or six peaches, usually more. 2011 was tough for the tree due to the drought, so we were especially thankful for the two dozen peaches it produced.

What will 2012 bring? We don't yet know. The tree probably doesn't yet know, either. But whatever happens, peaches or not, I am grateful to this 73-year-old dwarf peach tree for showing me what endurance is all about.  

No comments: