by Debby Hatch
There are apple trees all over Lopez: tidy, pruned ones in home gardens and commercial orchards; overgrown old standards visible across open fields, reminders of the island’s original orchards; heavily fruited but abandoned specimens along roadsides.
Curiosity over one of these nameless roadside trees—a beautiful old standard along Davis Bay Road, always loaded with big apples this time of year—led me to Romayne and Mary Ritchie and Eric Hall and their explanation for all these apple trees. People plant apple trees for food and for pleasure.
A few weeks ago, Eric and I visited Romayne and Mary Ritchie and walked through the 30-year-old orchard that surrounds their home. “I can tell you why Romayne plants apple trees,” Mary said, smiling. “His grandfather always said that if it hadn’t been for their orchard, they’d have been hungry many nights.”
“Every place we’ve ever lived, we’ve had to plant an orchard,” Mary added as we admired the trees stretching in rows south of the house and in espaliers north and east of it. As she identified varieties, we repeated the names: Summer Rambeau, Gravenstein, Yellow Transparent, Blushing Golden, King, Wagner, 20-Ounce, Idared.
Though a recent stroke has left Romayne unable to talk, he knows the locations of all the varieties he’s planted over the years and took us to any variety we wanted to see. Then, leaving us to talk about grafting and budding and to compare the flavors of all these apples, he got on his mower to cut the grass growing up between the trees.
While food may be Romayne’s main reason for planting apple trees, Eric delights in telling about the time he asked Romayne what his Roxbury Russets tasted like. “Standing in front of a tree loaded with Russets,” Eric said, smiling, “Romayne paused, tilted his head and said: ‘I haven’t tasted one yet.’” “I knew then,” Eric added, laughing, “that he was my kind of guy. It wasn’t about having enough apples. It was about growing them, just growing them.”
Later, as Eric and I talked about why he plants apple trees, he continued this theme, “It’s not that my grandparents were hungry. It’s not that I have this great philosophy to preserve varieties. It’s just for my own pleasure.”
“When I was a teenager,” he continued, “before I had an orchard or land, I just thought it was the absolute first thing I would do. I can’t tell you why, but it seemed like the most obvious thing.”
Another thing that seems obvious to Eric now is to plant hundreds of trees on his land here on Lopez just to leave for the future. “Something I think about often is that most of the apples I’ve eaten in these old orchards were planted by people I didn’t know and they had no idea about me. I feel so grateful to all those old trees that we have eaten from. I like to think of doing the same.”
He imagines an orchard of big, freestanding trees. The M-111 rootstock he’s using “is kind of a compromise. It’s a little smaller than standards, but it bears sooner. It tolerates both wet soils and drought, so it’s very carefree once it gets established.” And perhaps most important, “in general, the taller the trees, the longer they live.”
Talking with these apple enthusiasts, I realized that with all our focus on local, organic, sustainable agriculture, it’s easy to lose sight of the pure pleasure of growing food. In the end, it’s that pleasure that keeps us planting things.
And that nameless roadside tree? Mary told me it’s a Blue Pearmain.
First published in the Islands’ Weekly October 2007