During the past few weeks, in my backyard, there has been a Two-tailed swallowtail or possibly a Western Tiger swallowtail (they look very similar) visiting every day. These giant yellow butterflies are drunken fliers, as are most butterflies, in general, and never appear to have any destination in mind, certainly not one that requires the shortest distance between two points. They would make for an effective graphic in a nature film if the “trails” of their chaotic and unpredictable paths could be preserved, like those of a sparkler waved wildly in pitch dark, leaving behind no doubt about its path. I’ve seen the same thing done with steel wool (substantially less incendiary) swung in similar circles while attached at the end of rope, generating friction each time it hits the ground, with resultant sparks and seemingly continuous flame, much to the oohs and aahs of onlookers whose eyes can’t separate the time lag between the actual time of the spark when the steel wool hits the ground and the residual spark that has over saturated the rods and cones of each participating human eyeball.
Yesterday morning, I was standing next to my ‘King David’ apple tree. It’s an antique apple, one that was more widely grown at the turn of the twentieth century, but has no degree of notoriety a hundred years later save for nostalgists like me who remember crunching into one of the these yellow-fleshed beauties with a dark purple skin when it was growing in an orchard planted way back in 1915. This six footer is only on its third summer, but it’s already impressing me with about 50 flowers, most of which I will pinch off in order for more energy to go into growing wood that will eventually grow even more flowers. While I stood there checking out the length of new growth from one of the newly awakened terminal buds, one of these yellow butterflies landed on a flower. I put my finger out and it walked onto it willingly, without hesitation. I reached for my phone to capture the moment, but I had left it on my kitchen counter, and so it was just me and him—or her—and I wondered why in the world it had even bothered to walk onto my hand. Trust? Ignorance? Its legs were sticky and grippy, and I had a hard time getting it to walk back onto an apple branch, which it did, eventually, and then flew off again in the longest possible trajectory between me and its next destination.
The orchard that I mentioned was, and still is, at a place called Top of the World, where a dozen or more kinds of apples and pears were purchased from the Stark Brothers company—one of the few commercial fruit tree nurseries of the day—and included not only ‘King David,” but others with equally quaint hundred-year-old sounding names, harkening back to a day when ‘Gala’ was an event, not an apple. I don’t remember them all, but ‘Grimes Golden’, ‘Black Ben’, ‘Arkansas Black’, and ‘Rome Beauty’ were a few, and as of thirty years ago (even then, 70 years after they were planted) were still producing, albeit from trees with as much dead wood as live.There were more familiar names, too, like the original Starking red delicious, and the tasteless supermarket-grade ‘Golden Delicious’ that is a fabulously flavorful apple when eaten directly from the tree–but loses most of its luster by the time it makes it to store shelves.
This was at the Pinal Ranch, and when I lived there, I heated a hundred-year-old log cabin in an old double barrel, homemade wood stove that I made from a kit, the plans purchased from an ancient issue of Mother Earth News with 55 gallon drums salvaged from the least toxic source I could find. I had a full set of those magazines at one time, and they were my homestead encyclopedias, along with the old-style, pamphlet-sized issues of Organic Gardening magazine. I would look out onto the orchard over my trays of stately wheat grass growing from the cafeteria trails full of a one inch layer of worm castings that sat on the shelves that I built in front of the picture window that was my portal to this idyllic scene. There were 160 acres on the ranch, and these trees took up about half of that real estate. The closest trees were some old gnarly pears, one that had the remnants of an old tire swing, minus the tire, and it joined the hundreds of others in generating enough dead wood to keep my wood stove stoked for the half dozen years that I lived there. We had juniper and Emory oak to cut, too, but I could come home from work and cut a truckload of apple and pear wood that hardly needed split, and produced a fragrance that few wood burners will ever experience. Juniper will always be my favorite wood to burn, both in fragrance and burnability, but the apple and pear wood was my bread and butter in a house that had no other source of heat than the fire I started every morning.
I had a bio dynamic, French intensive garden going full steam in the back yard, with double dug beds, all surrounded by a barbed wire fence to keep the javelinas out. They still managed to squeeze under the bottom wire and spend a night using their rototilling snouts to wreak havoc on my double digging (which by definition, I had already done twice), uprooting the tomatoes, or cucumbers, or corn that I had planted there. I added another barbed wire between the existing lowest wire and the ground, and they still were able to limbo their way in. Finally, I nailed a solid line of 2 x 4s around to the base of the juniper posts that supported the fence and this finally proved to be their undoing. From then on, at night, I would hear the familiar sound of a dozen or more prowling in the blackness outside my bedroom window, but instead of the snorts and the characteristic chimpanzee-like grunts, they were now a sorrowful parade of hunger and frustration until they stopped circling the wagons—my secured perimeter fence—and moved onto greener, more accessible pastures.
This was the Iron and Craig ranch, and Bob Craig, in his 80s back in the mid 1980s, told me about the genesis of the ranch in a recording that I still have on cassette from an interview from thirty years ago. With the order of trees from Stark Brothers, they receive some cork oak seeds as a premium and one of these seeds became the large spreading cork oak that I think is still alive today. In some ways, the orchard was in a perfect location with deep soils and a high water table, but it also sat in a bowl, surrounded by mountains on all sides, and susceptible to sinking cool air that would pool around trees and prevent fruit from forming about one year in four. Meadowlarks and yarrow filled the spaces between the trees, and we often drove out into the orchard in my old Datsun pickup to lull our one year old daughter to sleep as we bounced along on the dirt road that ringed the perimeter of the orchard that we called home.