20 October 2014


I call Mr. Robert Fuller to let him know I’ve arrived in the small community of Pine, Arizona, to learn the story of his family’s apple tree.  It’s the champion Big Tree of its species and was planted by one of his ancestors about a hundred years ago.  Rain is beginning to fall again, small drops marking my windshield.  A few minutes later, a tall, thin man makes his way across the idle highway from the old house on the other side.  He waves and smiles to me; in a moment he opens the passenger door.  In spite of the rain, which has picked up since he left the house, he lingers outside.  It’s the hesitation of a man who has been raised to make introductions first, before he enters my domain, so to speak.  His eyes are bright beneath his ball cap, and his hands are cold but his handshake is firm and friendly.

He gets in the car and unrolls a packet of papers in his hands.  It’s the story of his ancestors, Mormon settlers who came to homestead this area beginning in about 1880.  Mr. Fuller’s great-great-grandfather, Wyllys Darwin Fuller, also known as Wid, was one of five men chosen to colonize the area, which was a challenging endeavor given the rough terrain and the perceived threat from the Apache.  Mr. Fuller tells me of how his ancestors not only scraped a living from the land, but also how they made it hospitable for their families who subsequently arrived, after a time.  By 1888, Wid held the contract for mail delivery, responsible for the mail route from Payson, to Pine, and on to Camp Verde, a distance of about sixty miles, which his sons, Frank and Alf, delivered via horse.  Sixty miles in today’s vehicles is not far, but on horseback, it was an all-day challenge, requiring multiple exchanges of horses. 

It was Alf, Mr. Fuller’s great-uncle, who planted the apple tree I’ve come to see.  It stands about a half-dozen miles from where we sit, on the sixty acres of land that he homesteaded around the turn of the previous century. 

“Are you ready to see the tree?” Mr. Fuller asks, noting that the rain has let up for the moment.

I nod and we pull out onto the quiet highway, driving north toward Strawberry.  Strawberry is more like a hamlet than even a small town, as I’d describe Pine.  Summer cabins and homes are tucked into the dense ponderosa pines; there is little in the way of commercial business.  We turn and the road dips sharply to ford a now-dry streambed.  Eventually the pavement ends and we continue down a soft, rutted road until we reach a locked gate.  We enter and walk from here, Mr. Fuller sharing stories as we go.  We pass by a modern structure and then turn as we reach a couple of barns made of logs, built by Alf around 1910.  The original home on this homestead still stands, a distance beyond where we are walking.

“There it is.” 

Champion Big Tree - Common Apple 

He points, and on the other side of a small wash, surrounded by a confusion of corrals, is the apple tree.  It is still winter, so the tree is unadorned, bloom-free and leafless, its skeletal essence massive and bulky.  I take a few photos from here before we continue down to the tree. 

Multiple main branches jut from the tree’s trunk and are themselves each the size of a typical apple tree.  The immense trunk, with a girth of more than thirteen feet, rises firmly from the grassy earth.  The bark is pocked and swirls up and around the trunk, and this illusion of movement lends a bit of grace to the tree.  Suckers sprout from the branches, vertical protuberances that cause Mr. Fuller to lament its condition.  At the base, a patch of iris grows, not yet in bloom.  Near this, a granite marker identifies the resting place of Alf’s son, Stanley, and Stanley’s wife Elvira.  Stanley grew up on the homestead; later he raised his own family here with Elvira.  The land now is held in a trust by Stanley Fuller’s descendants. 

Massive trunk

It is easy to imagine this now-abandoned ranch as a home.  The original white house perches on higher ground, flat land beyond the barns.  We are in a vast meadow studded with alligator juniper and large oak trees, cradled all around by hillsides crowded with pines.  In spite of the adversity these hardy pioneers undoubtedly suffered, this land is idyllic and I feel nostalgic in spite of my own childhood in the city.  My parents often took our family to a place not unlike this in southern Arizona, forty years ago.

Mr. Fuller tells me that the apple tree still produces and that the past year was a good one.  He presses these apples, and those from trees on his own property, making cider, which he sells at his honey stand in Pine.  I wonder how many bushels of tart apples this tree has provided the Fullers over the past century.

There are more Fullers in the Pine Cemetery now than in Pine, he says, adding that only one of the original five families who settled here, the Randalls, still have multiple family members living in the area.  He says this without sadness or bitterness.  He accepts that there is little economic opportunity in Pine, other than summer tourism, and his own descendants, as he puts it, are scattered.  But the tree remains, drawing life from the soil with deep roots, just as the Fuller family has for generations.

Mr. Robert Fuller with his family's apple tree

06 October 2014

Letting Go of the Bike, Part II

Madeleine is in my class this year, which has caused shifts in my professional vs. personal perspectives.  But regardless of my own conversations with myself, she had homework to do for my class.  Homework for my class always involves choices.  I give my students five options and they choose two that appeal to their own interests and intelligences.  This week’s included options such as summarizing a current event in a French-speaking country, making crêpes for your family and writing up a brief report about the process, doing an online grammar activity, and more.  Madeleine chose to make crêpes. 

Lately, my daughters have been becoming more and more interested in the kitchen.  Usually they want to make brownies or some kind of dessert, often from a mix.  They haven’t done much cooking from scratch.  Madeleine found a recipe and was ready to begin her project, and naturally, Arden and I gravitated to the kitchen as well.  We were going to help.  Yet, like most teenagers, Madeleine had her own independence in mind.  She kicked us both out of the kitchen.  Arden and I sulked for a bit, and then she went outside to ride her bike.  I continued to sulk, however, letting the worries pile up in my head:  what if she forgets an ingredient?  or doesn’t measure accurately?  or doesn’t understand the recipe?  Does she realize just how hot the pan needs to be?  What if she burns herself?

I fretted away while she busied herself in the kitchen.  I bit my tongue and said nothing, sitting quietly and reminding myself that (yet again) I was letting go of the bike, and that regardless of the outcome, there were lessons for both of us to learn.  Teaching a child to ride a bike is pretty much the metaphor for all things parenting.  I’d assigned my students recipes far more complicated than this one, and they’d survived, right?  Keeping quiet is often the most challenging thing a parent can do.  And perhaps because it is so difficult, it can also be very powerful – usually more powerful to the parent than the child.

Because I was forced into silence quiet, I had to listen.  And so I did.  I listened as she puttered about the kitchen, gathering her ingredients and supplies.  I listened as she left the fridge open far too long, had trouble lighting the stove, and used way too much cooking spray.  But I didn’t interfere.  I didn’t do anything until she asked for help, and even then it was the mundane task of tearing off sections of waxed paper.  I wanted to help.  I wanted to be needed.  Waxed paper?  I could do so much more than tear waxed paper!

But she didn’t need me.  She didn’t need me to do anything because she was fully prepared and ready for the task.  We never know what our kids are capable of until we give them the opportunity and power to do something on their own.  How often do we under- (or over-) estimate their abilities?  And like any complex dance, figuring out those details is the crux of parenting.  Are they ready?  Are we?

When it was time to assemble our crêpes and eat, they were perfectly golden brown and uniform.  We loaded them with fruit, Nutella, whipped cream, and more.  They were delicious, and no one had been hurt, the kitchen was still standing, and I had survived my banishment.   To be honest, her crêpes were far better than mine.