Apples to Apples, Dust to Dust

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There are four apple trees at the back of our property, lined up like dutiful soldiers. Sometimes I refer to them as John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Other times I call them Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. Depending on the season, they can also be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

When we bought our house in Ipswich, not so very long ago, I would not have known that these four trees were apple trees, because we had no such thing as apple trees in the desert, where I spent the previous two decades. (We had mesquite trees, which are judged not by the quality of their fruit, of which there is none, but by the sharpness of their barbs, which can cut you to the bone while you’re attempting to scoot under them to adjust your pool sprinkler.)

But during our Ipswich house-hunting expedition, the selling agent Ingrid Miles pointed out the four apple trees. They were planted in a prim and perfect row, almost certainly the result of a 1958 middle school science project.

Since the day we bought the house, I have learned that apple trees do not just give you apples, year after year, like mindless droids. Apple trees wax and wane. They give and they withhold. They are operating under some higher authority: maybe God, or the Ipswich Zoning Board of Appeals.

So three summers ago, our apple trees decided to go artsy. They sprouted blossoms. Wonderful! Beautiful! They were the Vincent Van Goghs of the tree world. Not a single apple, but plenty of lovely little flowers.

Summer before last, having rested up, our trees exploded with big, beautiful, juicy apples. Thousands of fabulous apples. The ground was like cobblestone, covered with fallen apples. Visiting deer made themselves sick gorging on apples — I saw a doleful doe holding a cool washcloth to the forehead of her puking fawn — and still there were apples. My daughter the apple-lover ate apples around the clock. We had apple pies, apple bread, apple cobbler. We used apples to make cake, chutney, fritters, turnovers. Apple crisp, applesauce, apple butter. Juice, cider. Candy apples. Apple-stuffed everything. I believe at one point we had creamy baked savory-sesame-bacon-onion-cheddar-caramel-mustard-chicken-apple-ginger-fennel-horseradish-slaw-sausage-crepe-sauerkraut fondue. We bought a fruit-drying contraption and learned to make apple chips. We had apple in our oatmeal. In our salads. In our meatloaf. We used apples for decorations. If we could have somehow turned them into fuel, we would have been set for the winter.

In desperation, we put out an all-call to our friends, pleading with them to come pick apples. We left a basket, a long-handled apple-picking tool, and a ladder propped outside our house, so any random stranger could come collect apples without an appointment any time of the day or night. I considered putting up a big sign on Linebrook Road: “Maybe you can’t pick your neighbors, but you CAN pick your neighbors’ apples. PLEASE.” Only one faithful friend, dear little Vicki Hughes from Poplar Street, came to our aid. She took away a mountain of apples taller than herself. And still we were drowning in apples.

Finally, this past summer, our temperamental trees for some reason decided to go Goth. All four of them produced the creepiest crop of apples in Ipswich history: black-splotched, misshapen little reddish blobs, their skins hideously cracked to reveal the soft, fleshy domicile of a legion of worms. Appallus domestica. Even the deer snorted and turned away.

This year, however, we have no apple problem. Our frightful fruits are being carted off, and it isn’t costing us a penny. We learned last week that our next-door neighbor’s two children, a kindergartener and his even-younger accomplice of a sister, have been slipping into our yard, snagging apples by the bagful, and proudly delivering these grotesque offerings — as their own family’s personal gifts — to all the homes on the street.

These children have come up with a beautifully perfect crime. They sneak, they steal, they lie — and ruin their parents’ reputation for classy gift-giving. But at the same time, the meadow is blissfully clear of apples. I love these kids. I hope next year to save the $50 curbside fee by getting them to handle my compost.

Nature in the News: The Vile Vegetation Episode

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“OK, Doug, you good to go?”

“Can I get a bottle of water?”

“Somebody get Doug some water!”

“Cue cards ready?”

“Ready.”

“OK then, Randy, whenever you say.”

“OK, Doug, you’re on in 3 … 2 … 1…”

Good evening, Ipswich. I’m Doug Brendel. Welcome to Nature in the News. I’m standing here on the Linebrook Frontier, in the meadow behind my house, near a line of trees at the edge of my property. In September and October, these trees turned a spectacular array of colors, which my family and I enjoyed very much. Now, however, it’s November, and as you can see, most of the leaves have died and fallen off, and we hate them because we have to rake them, or they’re brown and ugly and still on the branches, and we hate them for taking so long to fall because we want to get the raking over with.

There’s an exception, however, in this particular line of trees. As you can see, there are these greenish-yellow leaves still hanging on. This type of leaf is glossy, it’s rounded with a pointed tip, and it’s finely toothed. These leaves are arranged alternately along their stems — and they’re attached to a vine sporting orange and red berries. And the vine is wrapping itself around the trees.

This is the evil Asiatic bittersweet — the dreaded invasive species Celastrus orbiculatus.

Bittersweet is that stuff that people used to make those twisty holiday wreaths from — maybe that’s why Americans started importing it in the 1800s, before they realized it was going to eat us alive. Bittersweet also might have been what Prince Charming had to hack his way through in Sleeping Beauty, I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s illegal to sell bittersweet in Massachusetts today — because bittersweet is what’s destroying your beautiful New England trees.

As the tree grows, the bittersweet vine literally strangles it, tightening and thickening until it cuts a deep groove through its host’s bark. (The unsentimental Germans don’t call it bittersweet; they call it the “tree strangler.”)

Bittersweet grows up faster than it grows out — it can reach a height of 60 feet or more — and it soon spreads its leaves over the top of its host. Which means, forget about photosynthesis. The host tree is in the dark, starved for sunlight, and soon dead. A whole forest can become a mass of bittersweet vines, tangled around trees that only appear to be alive — because of the bittersweet leaves blithely flourishing up top.

This vile vine also actually pulls trees down. Its main feeder vines can grow up to four inches in diameter, with dozens of tough shoots reaching up to the tree’s branches — and as the tree grows taller, the bittersweet shoots refuse to budge. First the tree’s branches bend; eventually they’re ripped off. On a younger tree, bittersweet can actually snap the trunk in two.

And bittersweet is fast. Birds disperse the seeds, and new vicious little bittersweet babies pop up like crazy all over the place.

Here’s the bottom line for folks in Ipswich: Your trees — especially those along property lines or fencerows, roadsides or power lines — could be murdered by this menace, if you don’t take action. Get out there and take a look. Pull the little guys up by their roots. Snip the middle-sized vines with garden shears. Hack down the big boys with a saw. And cart the creepy corpses off; otherwise, they’ll re-sprout. We have to eradicate this plague; otherwise future generations of Ipswichonians won’t have any trees to hang tire swings from, and carve their middle school girlfriend’s initials into.

Of course, you’ve got to be careful when you go bittersweet-stalking. Poison ivy, for example, is a climbing vine too. It’s not killing your trees, but it’s hell on your skin. (Poison ivy has three leaflets together; bittersweet has only one. And older ivy vines get hairy; bittersweet gets corky.)

But let me also say, friends: This isn’t just about science and the environment. Tonight’s edition of Nature in the News is personal for me. We have not lived in Ipswich long, but my wife Kristina has spent many, many hours out here, battling the bittersweet, in her thickest garden gloves and her grubbiest jeans, wrenching out the small plants, using her crosscut saw to take down the larger ones. It’s hard labor, it’s intense, it’s time-consuming. I know. I’ve stood here supervising her, hour after hour, so I’ve witnessed the exertion that this kind of undertaking requires. I can tell you firsthand, it’s exhausting.

In fact — well, look at this, would you! I’ve been standing here so long, there’s a bittersweet vine wrapping itself around my leg right now. Randy, zoom in here, will ya? This is really interesting. I guess if you stand in one place long enough, out here in the meadow, the bittersweet thinks you’re a tree. To tell you the truth, I’ve been called a stump more than once in my life, but never a tree! Haha!

Hey, this is funny. I can’t seem to get this thing unwrapped from my leg. Of course it’s tough when you’re holding a microphone, and you only have one hand available to— pull— pry— yank

OK, Randy, can you come give me some help here?

No, I’m not kidding.

I don’t care if this could be good for the Garden Channel. Could you please get me free from this— errp! Hey, it found a hole in my pocket! Hurry!

Doug Brendel owes his bittersweet fixation, and most of the factoids in this column, to fellow Ipswich frontiersman Dave Carpenter and Lexington Tree Committee member Gerry Paul.

Let’s Connect the Dots

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First we had a nor’easter. Then we had Halloween. Then we had elections.

Everything is connected.

Part I

I have not lived in New England very long, so I have limited experience with nor’easters. Perhaps some townie can get me up to speed, so to speak, on this fast-paced marvel of nature.

(Weather.com tells me that nor’easters happen when “cold air from Canada meets warm air from the Gulf.” To me, this is a no-brainer. Canadians and Southerners should not date each other. The “temperature difference,” as Weather.com clearly states, “fuels storms.” Mixed marriages! Will people never learn?)

In the case of our late-October nor’easter, the initial wind — before it dropped any water — caught me on 95 northbound, trying to get to Ipswich Middle School in time to pick up my daughter from play practice. The nor’easter’s idea was to lift my very small car off of 95 and blow it 2,700 miles to the west, so I could pick up my other daughter from class at Arizona State. I refused to be detoured. I clamped a death-grip on the steering wheel and wrestled the nor’easter for control. I think the nor’easter was most intimidated by my cussing. In any event, I made it off of 95 onto Route 1 in Danvers, drove through the creepily dark Town of Topsfield (power totally out, border to border), and arrived at the school 10 minutes late — only to find my daughter and her friends laughing and playing in front of the Ipswich Performing Arts Center. The wind was so strong, they were leaning into it, arms outstretched like Leo DiCaprio in Titanic, without falling over.

“This is awesome!” my 13-year-old squealed.

But the wind was only the preview. As we arrived at home, along came the rain. For 36 hours or so, Ipswich was lashed by liquid of biblical proportions. Folks who hadn’t read the Old Testament in decades found themselves re-running the Noah story in their minds. (“He did promise never to drown us again, didn’t He?”) As I peered out from behind the tremulous glass of my 200-year-old windows, it seemed that the rain eventually no longer fell from the sky, but rather was running a continuous 100-yard dash around my antique house, and howling all the way.

When it was over, as we emerged from our homes and surveyed the aftermath, it was clear that the nor’easter’s entire objective was to strip all those lovely early-turning leaves from our New England trees. The luscious reds, the flagrant oranges, the audacious yellows: mostly gone, stripped from their branches, hurled through the storm, and ultimately flung to the earth, to be raked up and swept up and burned up — or composted or otherwise defiled — wherever the evil wind had carried them. Saugus. Swampscott. Sioux Falls. Who knows?

In the end, however, it was perhaps much ado about little. Even as October turned to November, many leaves were still green, hanging on, and turning radiant. There were fantastic displays on High Street, as if our antiquest antique houses were sneering, “Nor’easter? Eh. We’ve seen worse.”

Part II

Scarcely a week after the great wind, we were confronted with ghouls and goblins, blood clots and brain splatter, miles upon miles of children with mock-open-wound prosthetics glued to their flesh.

Here again, my particular background doesn’t inform my New England experience. Where I grew up, in the Chicago area, Halloween logistics were simple: All the kids in the neighborhood trick-or-treated at all the houses in the neighborhood. But here in Ipswich, it’s more complicated. Some neighborhoods are nice and compact, and the Halloweening is easy. But in many areas — like where I live, on Planet Outer Linebrook — houses tend to be far apart. If the weather is bad, parents don’t like to traipse across wet grass and uneven ground with their little green Hulks and little Frozen Elsas.

So it was for nothing that I filled a huge bowl to overflowing with Kit Kats and Whoppers, lit a spooky candle in our mudroom window, and stood in the doorway for two solid hours wearing my terrifying black cloak, under my terrifying black hat, with my face obscured by terrifying black boxer shorts.

(Among my discarded Halloween costume ideas: #3 Go as the Town Manager; dress up as Wonder Woman. #6 Five selectmen — five finger puppets? #8 Dress up as the back of a vending machine and go as Family Dollar. #11 Disguise the house as Little Neck and turn everyone away.)

So in the end, Halloween at our house turned out to be much ado about little. We were visited by a grand total of three trick-or-treaters, one of whom looked at the underwear on my head and said, “Are you Lydia Brendel’s dad?”

Part III

And then, the elections.

The nor’easter failed to rip off our leaves. Halloween failed to rip off our candy. And Election Day failed to rip off… uh…

Well, let’s just say all three experiences turned out to be much ado about whatever.

Pumpkin Panic

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“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”

“Pumpkin!”

“Excuse me?”

“Pumpkin!”

“Sir, I haven’t been called Pumpkin in a long time.”

“I’m being chased by a pumpkin!”

“Where are you, sir?”

“Downhill from it!”

“No, sir, I mean what town are you in?”

“Ipswich!”

[Brief silence. Heavy sigh.] “I should have known.”

“Linebrook Road! A pumpkin escaped from Marini Farm!”

“And the pumpkin is chasing you, sir?”

“It’s rolling down Linebrook Road!”

“I’m sorry, sir, I just want to understand the situation before I call out the National Guard, the Coast Guard, and President Obama’s drones on your behalf. Are you for some reason unable to outrun the rolling pumpkin?”

“I’m not running! I’m driving!”

“So you’re in your car, and the pumpkin is chasing you.”

“It’s a very small car! It’s a very large pumpkin!”

“Sir, try to settle down.”

“I can’t settle down! OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE LARGER THAN THEY APPEAR!”

“Sir, I’m trying to help you. But I’ll have to get some information.”

“Help me now! I’m about to become pumpkin pie!”

“Wait a minute. Is this Doug Brendel?”

“Excuse me?”

“Are you the guy who writes the Chronicle column?”

“Well, yes, thank you for noticing.”

“I think you’re the guy who called in last week about the turkeys.”

“There were turkeys! Turkeys! Walking down Linebrook Road!”

“They were in your way.”

“They were sauntering!

“Sir, you can’t call 9-1-1 every time traffic slows down in front of you.”

“Turkeys are not traffic! Not even in New England! Turkeys are a safety hazard! In front of everybody else, they cross the road. In front of me, they walk down the right-hand lane!”

“Mr. Brendel, you seem to be calling 9-1-1 every time traffic is moving too slow for you or too fast for you.”

[Unintelligible.]

“Mr. Brendel, you’ll have to lower your voice.”

“Why?”

“Because my headset is getting hot.”

“I’m being chased — in my very small car — by a very large pumpkin — down Linebrook Road!”

“Are there any identifying marks on the pumpkin?”

“Gah! I can’t tell! It’s rolling! It’s in my rear-view mirror! It looks like a massive swirling vibrating orange Indiana Jones boulder!”

“What direction are you going on Linebrook Road right now, sir?”

“Southwest! No! Northwest! No! Southwest!”

“Don’t mess with me, Doug.”

“The road keeps turning! Edge Street! Howe Street! Belle Street! I’m telling you, this is one fast pumpkin!

“It must be a very large pumpkin, to be rolling so fast.”

“Yeah! Did you see this week’s Time magazine?

“No.”

“The Topsfield Fair was featured for the winner of its heaviest-pumpkin contest! It was 1,900 pounds! Heavier than my car!”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Smart Car: 1,800 pounds. Erck!”

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry, the pumpkin and I just crossed Route 1 against the light. People at Cumby’s were covering their eyes.”

“Doug, tell me the truth. Were you short of ideas for a column this week? I mean, really. A pumpkin?”

“I’m telling the truth! A huge pumpkin escaped from Marini and rolled down Linebrook and—— aaaaah!

“Sir, I’m sending help. Try to stay calm. Sir? Sir?”