PAT NEAL: Anatomy of an orchard

IT WAS DAYLIGHT at the homestead but I was more than a little late for breakfast.

The cabin which had been built in the 1890s by a pioneer in an attempt to prove ownership of 160 acres of wilderness paradise as prescribed by the Homestead Law had collapsed into a pile of blackberry bushes.

The barn had blown down in a windstorm.

A 4-foot-square depression in the meadow marked the indelible impression of the outhouse.

The only standing remains of this once-tidy farm was an overgrown orchard of old fruit trees that were once upon a time of key importance to survival in this isolated wilderness.

Then as now, fall is a time of harvest and gathering berries, mushrooms, meat, fish and apples.

Modern-day hunter-gatherers are following a rich tradition handed down through the years before genetically engineered, chemically infused, processed foods became what passes for a human diet these days.

The apple is a prime example of the de-evolution of our food supply.

The apples we buy in the store have been engineered for color and shelf life.

Modern apples are often warehoused in cardboard boxes for so long before coming onto the market they can taste like the cardboard box they came in.

These industrial apples bear little resemblance to the apples grown on the old homesteads found on the Olympic Peninsula.

These magnificent old trees might have gotten their start from seeds from the old country that were saved in an envelope and brought across the ocean and the continent in the course of the great western migration from Europe to the west coast of North America in the 1800s.

Once they were planted, these fruit trees could have been growing the most important crop on the farm.

The diet of our early homesteaders was bleak.

One daughter of a rainforest homesteader described her favorite Sunday dinner. That was toast with milk that was thickened with flour if they had it and sweetened with sugar in the unlikely event that they had that too.

The typical crops on the frontier included carrots, potatoes and cabbage. None of which you could sell to your neighbors because they were growing the same things.

The only variety in this mundane diet was provided by the abundant fruit trees delivering a dependable annual harvest.

Pioneer memoirs provide a glimpse of life on the homestead when the apple harvest failed, making a bleak existence even more difficult.

A visit to a pioneer orchard can be a wildlife adventure because almost every critter and bird likes apples.

The trunks of the old trees are riddled with holes drilled by the sapsuckers sucking sap.

Grouse live in the old apple trees eating apples and the new buds.

Deer set their migration routes timed to the ripening of the apples.

Bears love apples more than all of the rest of the animals put together. And if they find a hornet’s nest in the tree, they’ll eat that too.

The bears also can provide the tree with a free pruning service by breaking the branches off, which is a little rough but it doesn’t kill the tree.

Bears can be very picky by eating only the ripest apples. Which means you had better pick your winter supply of apples before the bears do.

Once I watched a bear sitting over a pile of apples. It was holding an apple between its paws, chopping it up in her jaws while sucking out the juice.

It was a picture of pure enjoyment.

I felt bad about scaring the bear away but I needed apples too.

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Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].