Helena Writes #27: On apples and autumn

Helena Writes (watercolor)
Date Posted:
10/7/2020

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 27th post, she shares a seasonal story and recipe from her childhood. Enjoy!

 

Autumn

Oliver, standing at the window, paw reaching, head following the leaves falling,

The pot of cosmos seeds I planted, flowering.

Summer squash grown fat, under the many blossoms—

I planted too late.

 

Orange leaves cast orange light

A road I know seems a  different place.

 

Autumn.

 

The first time I came to this house by myself, I stood on the porch looking into the woods. A tree fell, I watched it collapse on itself, slow motion. When a tree falls in the woods with no one to witness it, does it make a sound? But I was there, now, after the house had stood empty for four years, witness.

In the beginning, there was Chaos…The Great Unknown, The Life Force, Animator of the Universe, Great Benevolence, First Cause,

The force greater than myself. I know it wasn’t me.

That great I Am,

moved upon the waters. 

 

And from Chaos came order. 

The Phoenix rises. Up from the mud comes the lotus.

 

Such beauty, do the leaves express at the apparent end of their cycle, as they let go, carried by the wind—

To my porch, to be swept,

Small me, making order.

 

How many years have they blanketed this clearing before I gathered them for compost? They’ve made good earth here, at my place I call Brigadoon. A fertile cover to grow flowers, and my late squash.

Now I recall my father, covering me with an extra blanket before he went to bed. After the landlord turned the heat down for the night. I came out of sleep just enough to feel his love, in that woven-wool, satin-edged pink blanket, soft weight falling on me. I did not get down on my knees and thank him for his love, his concern, his extension into his children’s well-being. I do that now. Then it was life, and went into the earth of me.

There are 25 more layers of leaves, decaying into good soil here, since I came. Creation hidden in decay. Twenty-five Falls. And for every year I’ve been here, 16 bales of spoiled hay, brought by my neighbor, for the garden. I used to buy good hay to stack against the foundation of the house for insulation against the winter—sub zero, most years.

There has been transformation here. I’ve made my order, an artist’s order. Not clipped and neat and landscaped. But beautiful. Rambling, with small sections of burgeoning greens, rocks, dug and hauled, many of them tools, it’s obvious—used by people who were here before me. I have fitted my fingers into worn curves, places others’ fingers gripped. I’ve deciphered diagonals—where hide bindings fastened shafts. And on my piece of earth is the imprint of a human being to which order is essential for her well-being.

I have bought eight extra bales of spoiled hay, hay that was left in the rain, spoiled for feed hay, three dollars a bale instead of four. I want to put my garden to bed. I don’t know if I will ever get to it. It’s not as lovely to be out now; it’s chilly. And it’s an end, not a beginning, like the summer garden. But I hope I will. It would make an order I haven’t yet fulfilled. Yet it won’t be wasted if I disappoint myself. I’ll use it for mulch in spring, when the garden begins again. I’ve cut the baling strings on the hay, though. And separated the things I don’t know the name for, the squares packed by the hay baler. I’ve helped them fall like dominoes around the perimeter of the garden, staging them into an order that says, someone lives here who cares about the way things present.

My place has been staged all summer, chairs and umbrellas distanced 10 or more feet, for the few friends who have visited. And when they go, the chairs are empty, still, orderly and beautiful. Waiting.

There were no weekend retreats here this summer. Nor will there be in fall. No big family visits. Like all of us, my beautiful Brigadoon is waiting.

Brigadoon, a legendary place, out of time, yet in Scotland. It appears every thousand years, for one day. And one day in Brigadoon is a thousand years on earth. In  Brigadoon, there is peace. Evil cannot dwell long in Brigadoon. A musical on Broadway, a film. There is truth to it.

This place, I have begun to think, embodies some memory of a farm to me, willy-nilly farmer though I am. One of the things I heard as a child, spoken by someone in my family: We were farmers in Poland. We grew potatoes. Maybe that’s there, beyond my memories of the concrete streets of Brooklyn. Mustn’t it be? Don’t we remember more than we know?

The Quarantine. Spring, fall, and now the coming winter. 

The Beech leaves have beautiful configurations of yellows and greens. I want to make cards, to match with envelopes, as I did the first autumn I was here. The glue stick and newspaper for gluing, to save the table top, are sitting next to me. And a pile of blank cards. I had a studio sale that first year. I sold a few hundred of glued-leaf cards. It was the beginning of an era. The cards flew off the table the way their leaves flew off the trees, because in my excitement, they were inspired. It’s always that way at studio sales. Excitement is an energy. And energy has mass and weight. People feel it, get caught up in my joy—the joy of the artist. That is the gift of art.

This is a somber autumn. Yet no one can prevent the spring. It is a cosmic inevitability.

Endings are beginnings. No human being can alter The Great Reality.

I take comfort in that as I write. Nature and grace will renew the earth again. And with the earth, it will renew those of us who wait.

Here’s an autumn story, in process. I’ve been working on it for years; I can hardly remember how long. 

 

Apple Stars

By Helena Clare Pittman

 

“Lily! Ben!” Ma wakes us early. “Hurry!” she calls.

It’s still dark. Ben pulls up his covers.

“There’s a frost due by week’s end!” I can hear her, halfway up the stairs.

I sit up.

“Apple Pie?” she asks at the doorway.

Ben’s eyes open. I hurry to get dressed.

At the end of our street, an orchard grows. How it got there, no one knows.

If you ask our ma, she’ll say John Chapman planted it. If you ask, “Who’s John Chapman?” Ma recites a poem:

 

Johnny Chapman,

Bit an apple, found a star!

Scattered its seeds to the twinkling sky

Tucked them in and called, Good Night!

Johnny Chapman Appleseed!

 

He left a path of blossoming hills

And wore holes in the soles of his shoes!

           

“Did Johnny Appleseed really plant our orchard, Ma?” asks Ben.

“Who’s to say? He planted apples all over this country. Old Aunt Belle said he passed this way.”  She cuts an apple into slices. It sits on the table, each slice with its star, next to the box of cereal while Ben and I eat breakfast. “I’d say he wore out more than one pair of shoes!”  says Ma.

“But who said it first?” I ask.

“Hmm?” asks Ma.

“Who said the poem?”

That makes Ma think. “Could have been Aunt Belle’s husband, Uncle Carl,” says Ma. “He was an auctioneer like your pa. And auctioneers like to sing!”

The orchard was there when the front yard was pasture. It was there before the auction barn, when the road was a dirt path. Now its branches are sagging with apples.

Autumn is cider making time. Ma learned to press cider from her own ma, who learned from her ma, our great grandmother. And who knows who, before that! The cider press has been passed down just like the song about Johnny Appleseed.

The baskets and the ladder are stored in the barn where Pa is working, getting ready for Sunday’s auction. People will come to buy the furniture he repairs, and the cider. 

We load the truck. Ma and I sit in front. Ben runs behind. 

The sun is sliding along the edge of the mountain. Ma pulls the truck onto the grass. I hand the baskets down to my brother. We set up the ladders. Ma’s looking at all the apples covering the ground.

“Green, yellow, red. 

Rhode Island Greening. 

Yellow Starr. 

Roman Beauties!” Pa will sing on Sunday. 

But here’s what Ben and I are singing now:

Cider and pies, fritters and dumplings!

Apple sauce and apple bread!” 

“There will be plenty to do in the days ahead—” says Ma. 

The house will smell sweet and fruity.

We gather up the best apples from the ground to sell on Sunday, and Wednesdays, at the Farmer’s Market. We shake the branches and gather more.

Basket after basket of good apples. Those go to one side of the truck bed, cushioned by old quilts. The apples with worm spots and blemishes go to the other. The air is cold but the work is warm. A bushel basket of apples for a gallon of cider.

Ben and I take turns on the ladder.

“Wore holes in the soles of his shoes, his shooooooes!” sings my brother, standing in the branches, picking apples, laying them carefully into the sack bag slung on his shoulder, so they won’t get blemishes.

“Five bottles,

ten bottles,

twenty-five and thirty,” 

“Thirty five and forty.

Forty five and sixty five.

Eighty five, one hundred!” Ben wants to call at the auction too.

“Fifty to sell and fifty to keep!” answers Ma. “A hundred baskets for a hundred bottles,” she says. “A good week’s work, rain or shine!”

Even after a week there will be plenty left for the deer, the bob whites and finches—and the worms.

At the end of every day we wash the apples for cider and cut out the brown spots. Ben I I take down the old wooden cider press from its peg in the barn, and the glass bottles we’ve washed and collected all year.

We pour the apples into the trough, line the strainer with cheese cloth. We take turns cranking the handle. Golden cider runs out the spout, down the funnel, into the bottles.

Five bottles, ten bottles, twenty-five and thirty!

The pulp gets composted for the garden. The apples we don’t sell will stay fresh in the cool root cellar, for Thanksgiving pies, and winter’s eating and cooking.

Cider and apples to sell go on a table in the front yard, for people passing by. The rest will stand in the spring house to use through the months, and one bottle in the fridge to drink hot, with cinnamon sticks, by the fire.

By Saturday night our bones are aching. A hundred bottles sit in the yard, orange as the leaves, the setting sun glinting through glass looking like stained glass windows.

Ma’s cutting up apples, rolling circles of flower and butter, the three of us singing, “Johnny Chapman, bit an apple and found a star, left a path of blossoming hills. Wore holes in the leather of his shooooeees!”

I’m pinching down dough, Ben is sifting sugar over the rows of Ma’s Apple Sweethearts.

“Is this your Ma’s recipe?” I ask.

“This is my own,” answers our ma.

“Do you think he really did?” asks Ben. Ma knows what he means.

She answers Ben’s question with her own: “Who’s to say Johnny Chapman didn’t plant that orchard?”

She carves into an apple with her paring knife to find the star full of seeds. She cuts it in half and shakes the brown seeds into our hands. “And that’s what he planted!” declares Ma.

“Do you think it was Aunt Belle’s pa who made up that song? Asks Ben.

“It’s so long ago, who knows?” says Ma. “Maybe it was Uncle Carl’s brother Ray. He was an auctioneer too.”

Ben and I dig holes in the hill next to the salad garden. We put a seed in each one. Next year they may be seedlings. If they survive the winter we’ll move them to the orchard.

“Do you think he stood here on this spot?” I say to Ben.

“Probably,” he answers.

“Wonder if he saw the sun set over the pond,” I say.

“Must have,” says Ben.

“Wonder how he fixed them,” I say.

“What?” asks Ben.

“His shoes,” I answer.

Ben just looks at me.

I imagine Johnny Appleseed soaking his feet in our pond at the end of a long day of walking. The pond water gets warm in summer.

The harvest moon is the color of apple cider. The sky is twinkling with stars.

At the end of our street an orchard grows. Soon its branches will be covered in snow. Maybe they’ll be dreaming of spring. My brother, Ben, will be dreaming of Ma’s pies. I’ll be dreaming of apple stars, and old John Chapman’s tired feet soothed by the warm waters of our pond.

*

John Chapman was born in 1774, two years before America declared its independence from England. He walked the hills and meadows of the North American continent planting apple trees. He loved the land and he loved apples. Folks came to call him, Johnny Appleseed.

In about the same year, the Chinese master of the brush, Chen Lei, taught his students to paint apples, from the interior star outward, to the red, green and yellow skins.

 

Ma’s Apple Sweethearts

5-6  Apples, cored, peeled and sliced

½ cup organic all purpose wheat flour

½ cup organic whole wheat flour

¼ cup honey

¼ cup maple syrup

3 tablespoons of butter

A few shakes of salt

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon all spice

2 tablespoons of warm water

½ cup of confectioner’s sugar

 

Pour flour into a mixing bowl. Shake in a dash of salt. Using two dinner knives, cut in 2 tablespoons of butter into the flour. When all the flour is lumped with the butter, add two tablespoons of warm water. Mix, but not too well. Turn out the mixture on a floured piece of waxed paper, or on a clean linen towel. Knead until it forms a more solid lump. Roll slightly with your palms to make a cylinder and set it aside.

Cut the apples into slices. Put them into a bowel, add the honey and maple syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, a shake of salt, then toss, being sure to coat the apple pieces with the sweet, spicy mixture.

Now, use a dinner knife to cut the cylinder of dough into slices. On a piece of floured waxed paper, or on a floured linen towel, press out each slice with your fingers to make a thin, flat circle. With your knife, cut a heart shape in each circle. (Save the extra, cut-away dough to re-form into additional circles, to make as many hearts as there is dough.) Place a tablespoon of the apple, honey, syrup mixture in the center of one heart. Dip a finger tip into the remaining warm water and wet just the surface edges of the dough heart. Cover the first heart with a second, and pinch the edges. Pierce each Apple Sweetheart with the tines of a fork. Grease a cookie sheet with the remaining butter.

Place each Sweetheart on the cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the dough is slightly browned. Using a spatula, remove each one to a plate. When they are cool sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.

Yum!

 

On process

Here is some further writing I’ve done on this story—still in Lily’s voice. I plan to integrate it into the text:

But maybe…

Johnny Chapman didn’t plant the orchard at all, I’m thinking.  Maybe the Chapman family had an orchard and the birds carried the seed.

Maybe… that orchard was so beautiful that when Old Mrs. And Mr. Chapman died Johnny wanted to plant its seeds everywhere, so that others could see their beauty and be nourished by their apples. 

Maybe… Old Mrs. Chapman said to him, “Johnny, leave the world a better place than you found it!”  Maybe that’s why he wandered the countryside.

“Maybe she told Johnny,”those trees are beautiful in Summer, thick with leaves, in Autumn, full of apples, in Spring, sweetening the smell of the breeze. And in Winter, their graceful branches are dark silhouettes against the snow—with all that promise of pink blossoms, and red, green and yellow apples.

“’All that bounty!’ Maybe she said that!”

No one knows, really.

“He probably planted the first tree right on the hillside where his Mam and Pap were buried,” say Ma, looking out the window.

“Maybe he made his way all the way to China,” says Ben.

“I guess he could have,” says our Ma.

“Mmm-hmmm,” says Ben.

But… maybe it wasn’t that way at all. Maybe Mrs. Chapman…let’s say her name was Georgina, or some good old name like that—maybe Georgina said, “Son, look at that orchard, shining in the spring sunlight. When you harvest those apples this fall you collect the seeds.” Maybe that’s what she said. “Take them with you wherever you go and scatter them. Let the descendents of these trees fill the valleys and hills of this beautiful country. Then people can taste the sweetness of these apples.”

“And make pies.”

“Uh huh.”

“And Apple Sauce.”

“Uh huh.”

“And have good food to eat through the winter.”

Ben and I are quiet. I’m the one who says next, “Maybe she told Johnny Chapman that when she was old.”  

“Why would anyone walk so far and wear out their shoes like that?” says Ben.”

“To plant apples,” I tell him.

“…to China?” says my brother.

“Ben, you can’t walk to China!”

Ma looks at us both. “On a cold nights by the fire, what does our cider taste like—?”  She’s asking us.

“The apples!”

“And what do they remind you of?”

“The Spring!”

Ma is just quiet now.

“Ma?” I ask. “Why would she do that?”

Our ma is just looking out the window at the red leaves of the witch hazel bush. Then she looks at Ben and me again. “For the beauty of it,” she says.

The kitchen is so quiet I can hear us all breathing...

“All from a handful of seeds!” says Ma, and smiles at last. Maybe Mrs. Chapman knew her son,” she says. “And knew that nothing would satisfy Johnny but to spread the goodness of that beautiful orchard.

“Which one?” asks my brother.

“The one that grew in Mrs. Chapman’s meadow—maybe,” says Ma. “No one knows, really…no one does.”

We all are working now, filling cookie sheets with tarts to sell on Sunday.

Leave the world better than you found it, I’m thinking.

Ben is thinking the same, because he says it. “Maybe that’s why he did it. His ma told him that the way you tell us, Ma.” says Ben.

“Umm hmmm,” says Ma and smiles.

At the end of our street an orchard grows….nobody knows who planted it. Its apples are sweet. I think it was John Chapman--Johnny Appleseed.

And those are my notes. This story is, as are a number of  my stories, a work in progress.

I learned about the process of cider-making from a good friend. Did a little research, drew upon my own experience, dreamed what could be, and wrote

 

Life distilled—

—like the taste of apples in cider—is seen in the imagination, that greatest of gifts.

 

Related reading: Helena Writes

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