Readers’ voices: Survival lessons from a crabapple tree 

  • Miliann Kang’s crabapple tree. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Blooms from the author’s crabapple tree. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Miliann Kang’s backyard in Northampton. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 4/29/2020 1:15:01 PM

The old crabapple tree in the backyard was on its last leg and would need to be cut down. Or so we were told when we moved in. That was 17 years ago. That first spring, and every spring since, it has burst into bloom around this time of Easter, Passover, Ramadan, May Day, Cinco de Mayo and all the other celebrations of spring. A riot of pink and white blossoms that look like cotton candy before they flutter to the ground like confetti. 

In June, when we moved into our house in Northampton, the tree’s branches hung almost to the ground, spotted with sickly-looking yellowish green leaves. Our neighbor shared with us that a few years before, it had been struck by lightning, which sheared off half of it. Fearful that it would fall over, several people advised the elderly woman who lived in our house before us that it should come down. But she, like us, must have felt a kinship with it and left it to its own devices.  

A friend who is a tree doctor, of sorts, told us that after being struck some trees develop a kind of black tar, sealing off the exposed wood to prevent rot and dissuade birds or bugs from burrowing. Apparently, this is what our tree did. It formed scar tissue around its wound and held its remaining half upright. It knew it had something to offer the world and went back to the business of pumping out its tender petals like a diva who refuses to be put in a corner, let alone out to pasture.

The blooms usually last but a few days, sometimes a week, maybe two if we’re really lucky. They seem to appear overnight, in an instant. When our daughter was young, she would wake us up with cries of “the apple tree came back to life!” Later in her teen years, she would announce with a bit of snark, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” Indeed, that is what appeared to be happening each year: a resurrection.

Spring 2020, when so much is uncertain and frightening, this grand dame’s blooms are particularly beautiful and boisterous. I nearly cried the morning I woke up and saw the sun filtering through its spindly branches in rays of pink. Yes, it seemed to announce, even in the time of coronavirus, spring will come.

The old saying that March comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb seems to have been flipped this year. March came in still somewhat lamblike, even if simply due to ignorance and denial of what was to come. It ramped up into a roar during April’s showers and will most likely continue well beyond May’s flowers.

This year, the day after it bloomed, it snowed. For this is Massachusetts, where April showers can instantaneously morph into April flurries. I worried that the tree’s delicate flowers would be destroyed. Usually, I cut off a small branch or two for the kitchen table, wanting to appreciate the blooms indoors but not harm the tree. But as I watched the snow accumulating and envisioned the frozen petals all scattering to the ground, I grabbed a pair of kitchen scissors and went outside. I filled up a large vase with blooms, which I then distributed into four or five smaller vases. These are now perched around the house, not just on the kitchen table but next to our beds and on various windowsills. The snow melted almost immediately, and the flowers remained on the tree. But I realized the tree was a lot heartier, and had much more to give, than I had given her credit for.  

There is clearly a life force in this tree that is determined to stay, as long and as strong as it can. But it, too, could easily succumb in an instant. Another lightning bolt or blight or mite could easily topple it.

I think of all those whose blooms have been abruptly cut short by the coronavirus or are hanging on but feel cut off, destabilized, uprooted. I know this is an especially difficult time for young people, and old people, and in fact, anyone and everyone in between. Like the crabapple tree, I hope we can dig deep to find fertile and nurturing soil, to survive this bolt out of the blue and keep stretching our branches to the sky.

Miliann Kang is associate professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and director of diversity advancement for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
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