In the month of September, 2001 I was 22 years old with a broken heart and one of the most beautiful jobs in the world. Four months before, I’d given my first born daughter up for adoption. I was still in shock, reeling with grief and grappling with the blank and terrifying future that lay ahead of me. At that point, one of the hardest things about adoption for me was that in giving away my daughter, I gained the freedom to do anything I wanted with my life. All I wanted was be a mother, but I believed- and still do- that in order to be the best mother for my child, being her mother was the only thing in the world I couldn’t do.
While wrestling with the question of what my future would hold, I fell into a job as a migrant laborer for the autumn season. Turkey Ridge was an organic apple orchard laid out over 280 acres of green ridges and deep valleys near Gays Mills, WI. The orchard had been neglected for years, and many sections were wild and overgrown but the trees were full of small and scabbed apples that needed to be picked for cider before the winter came and the hippies running the place were having a tough time getting enough people together to pull a bushel basket over their shoulders, grab ladders, and start bringing the apples off the trees. You were paid by how many 40 lb bushel bags of apples you poured into huge bins, and the professional migrants were too wise to spend their time fighting through tangled and towering branches on a ladder 10 feet high when they could be moving steadily down a close cropped row pulling pumpkin sized apples off the branches at warp speed at the conventional and well ordered orchards down the row. As a result our crew was a ragtag bunch of misfits of hippies, homeschoolers, and juvenile delinquents.
An apple orchard in the driftless hills is surely one of the most beautiful places on earth. Every morning I caught my breath watching silver clouds rise from the valleys and melt into the bright blue sky. There is something both wild and domesticated in the shape of an apple tree, even a brambled and unkempt one reaching for the sky. The apples are flushed with rose or delicate green, round and smooth against the rough branches, and smell sweet. The grass is long and lush, and flowers planted to draw honeybees bob in the slight breeze. This is August, the beginning of the season, when the delicate thin skinned Macintosh apples are ripe and ready for picking. There is a deep silence in the orchard, broken only by the distant purring of an old tractor heading over the ridge. Perched on a ladder in the treetop reaching for an apple just beyond my grasp I felt as though I was doing yoga in the trees. I’d never done yoga, but I knew that the constant stretching was the reason that carrying 40 pounds up and down that ladder every day didn’t leave me aching at the end of the day. The beauty and the solitude of the orchard and the work that I was doing was uplifting to my soul. In the orchard, I felt free and the freedom wasn’t terrifying.
On September 11, 2001 I was making the hour long drive from my parent’s farm to the apple orchard. I had a mason jar full of coffee and, I am sure, a hand rolled cigarette. I was drinking in the coffee and the beauty of the early morning and listening to NPR as I drove. The early reports of a plane flying into the tower came at the top of the hour, notable because the announcer lost his smooth suave and sleepy public radio flow and sounded slightly muddled and confused. I wrinkled my brow for a second, trying to imagine what this would look like. I could not imagine it being a serious thing, perhaps because I couldn’t imagine the twin towers at all. I thought of radio towers, prop planes, things I had seen in the dairy country of Western Wisconsin. Then I dismissed the topic, turning my attention to the morning call in show that followed the news headlines. Wisconsin Public Radio is notable for featuring an unusual amount of local level call in shows wherein guests discuss pets, state politics, gardening, cooking, books, and Issues of all sorts. Callers range from your classic NPR liberals to libertarians, contrarians, and conservatives. I am convinced this is partially a result of all the dairy farmers trapped in their barns morning and night with their hands full, wishing for some company beyond country music.
On this morning the burning topic on the call in show was: Product Presentation in Art and Literature. The expert on the potential dangers of Product Presentation was being interviewed via phone from a location in New York City. The interview was supposed to begin with an anecdote about a new novel sponsored by a high end Jeweler, but the expert was in that New York apartment glued to CNN, relating the little the TV people knew to the host of the Wisconsin radio show, and all the listeners. At one point, the host said something to the effect of “Look, this is very interesting, but I can’t have you reporting the news on this show. We are waiting for word from our official news team. Could we return to the topic at hand?” The terrified expert replied, “You have got to be kidding me. There is smoke outside my window. We might be at war. You want me to talk about product placement?! This subject doesn’t matter! It is completely unimportant!”
I pulled up to the orchard half an hour later and broke the news, what little of it I understood. The radio just isn’t the best medium to convey the scope of an unimaginable diasaster. You have to see to believe something like that. Our ragtag crew of pickers dragged a beat up tv out of a corner of the packing shed, plugged it into an extension cord, and tried to find the local channel through the static on the screen. It’s hard to get reception on the ridge. We saw a little of the coverage, the planes and the smoke and the flames and the bodies free falling through space to the concrete below, and then we headed out into the orchard. There were apples to pick.
It is hard to imagine feeling much further away from New York City than a quiet ridgetop orchard at the end of a long dirt road an hour from the nearest little big town. I felt so safe on my ladder, in my tree, in that orchard, on September 11, 2001. Even after five minutes of fuzzy television, I couldn’t imagine a skyscraper, let alone one collapsing into rubble and ragged steel. I couldn’t imagine thousands of people lost, and the grief of their loved ones. I didn’t feel shaken by the tragedy of September 11th, I felt numb and confused by it, and grateful to be safe and high in the branches of an apple tree protected by the green hills of Western Wisconsin, far from New York City and the rest of the world. I had my own grief, my own lost loved one, and that was all I had room for in my heart. I had my hands full of apples, and I was glad of it.
This year, on the tenth anniversary of September 11th, I live in a great grey city spreading over ridges and valleys. Just down the hill and to the left, a forest of skyscrapers rise and fall on the horizon. I have had ten years full of freedom and adventure, of grief and pain and more often of beauty and great joy. I have a beautiful one and a half year old daughter. This year in the second week of September I stood in my kitchen early in the morning listening to NPR and heard the story of Father Mychal Judge, the first victim of September 11th. If you have not heard of this man, please follow that link. It is an incredible piece and an amazing story full of grace. The story left me in tears. They were the first tears I cried for September 11th.
I am not numb anymore. I am grateful for the grace of God, poured out for hearts that are suffering. And I’m still grateful for the safety and the peace I found in that apple orchard ten years ago.