Twelve-year-old Mark Reynolds was getting a head start on teenage angst. He was beyond annoyed his mother was forcing him to go apple picking on a Saturday he could have spent playing video games, eating junk food, and texting his friends.
Mark hadn’t been out to Wentworth Acres since he was ten.
Admittedly, he’d loved going there when he was a kid. Picking apples, riding the hay wagon out to the field beyond the orchard to choose the perfect pumpkin to carve and put on the front step, running around the haybale castle, whooshing down the slides, and eating caramel apples with his friends had been so awesome.
But he was twelve. Twelve! Too old for this kind of kid stuff. He huffed out a deep breath and glared at his mom as she drove.
He’d be so humiliated if anyone he knew saw him and he would never, ever forgive his mom. He crossed his arms and continued to glare at her as she pulled into the parking lot adjacent to the farm stand and play area.
Mark slowly opened the car door and cautiously glanced around to make sure he didn’t see any of his friends, breathing out a sigh of relief when the coast was clear. What was he worried about? His pals were too cool to hang out here.
He inhaled deeply as the enticing aroma of cinnamon sugar-coated apple cider donuts filled the crisp, autumn air making his stomach rumble. He’d only eaten three bowls of cereal and a bagel with strawberry cream cheese this morning. He was starving.
“Hey mom,” Mark hesitated, shooting her a sidelong glance. “Think we could grab some donuts before we pick apples?”
“I was thinking the same thing,” his mom replied with a soft smile.
After eating five donuts, he had to leave one of the half dozen for his mom, and drinking nearly half a gallon of apple cider, Mark felt decidedly better.
He had to stop himself from smiling as he watched the little kids play and babble with excitement as they showed off their pumpkins and stuffed their faces with caramel apples and donuts. He tried to maintain his distain any time his mom looked his way.
She tried to interest him in going over the different types of apples they could pick, but he just wanted to get it over with. Mark tried to stay hidden behind the signs for the various kinds of apples as his mom slowly made her way down the long table. He kept nervously peering around the signs – just in case.
She finally decided on granny smith and a variety called baby zestars he thought sounded really good, but he’d never admit it to her. He just shrugged and kicked at the dirt as they made their way out of the farm stand toward the orchard.
They picked two bags of baby zestars and followed the signs toward the granny smith apple trees.
Mark asked his mom if he could run ahead to get started. He figured she looked happy because she thought he was enjoying their time together, but he just wanted to get done as quickly as possible so he could go home and play his games. She nodded and handed him one of the remaining empty bags.
He ran down the path through the trees, thinking only of how much he was missing out on by being forced to pick apples. He came to an abrupt halt next to the “Granny Smiths” sign and groaned.
The granny smith apple trees were such a letdown. Since the apples were nearly the same color as the leaves, they just looked like regular old trees. At least red apples showed up against the leaves making it so much easier to find them. Mark grumbled to himself, rolled his eyes, sighed, chose a nearby tree, and began to pick the green apples.
As Mark moved on to another tree, a shaft of sunlight filtered through its branches shining on the most beautiful apple he’d ever seen. It was much higher up than he could reach. He glanced around to make sure no one was watching and started to climb the tree, even though he knew it wasn’t allowed.
When he reached out to pick that perfect apple, he felt something grab him by the shoulders. His feet swung in midair as he started to panic. He jerked his head up and saw a gnarled face appear in the trunk of the tree above him.
Mark started yelling for his mom as he tried to wiggle out of the grasp of the apple tree. He kicked his dangling feet but could not free himself.
"Stop yelling young man," said the tree in a deep and resonant voice. "Please calm down and I will explain what has happened."
Mark continued to call for help but began to relax as he looked into the tree's warm, brown eyes. After several minutes, Mark got up the courage to ask, "Who are you?”
A soft, gentle rumble started deep inside the tree trunk and turned into a reverberating laugh. "My name is Abernathy. I am the keeper of this apple orchard. If I set you on one of my branches, do you promise to listen to what I have to say?"
Mark couldn't explain why, but something about Abernathy was very reassuring. "I promise," he replied.
Abernathy carefully set Mark down on a big, strong branch and lightly placed another knobby limb behind Mark’s back to hold him steady. "It has been many years since I talked to a human," he began. "In nature, there must be balance; people rarely understand this."
"It is my job to help keep the balance between nature and man. In every apple orchard around the world, one tree acts as the keeper,” Abernathy paused and looked directly at Mark. "Each keeper tree has one special apple. In my branches, it is the last apple you tried to pick."
Mark gasped. He remembered the perfectly round, juicy green apple he reached out for just before the tree grabbed him. "I don't understand," he said. "Trees can't talk!"
Abernathy chuckled. "Humans! Such simple creatures. You see yourselves as the center of the universe. Do you not agree without trees, animals, fruits, vegetables, and all the other amazing things the world has to offer this planet would not be such a wonderful place to live?"
"Well yes, I guess I do," Mark answered slowly. "But people need to use the things around them to survive."
"It has been thousands of years since your kind only used what was needed,” Abernathy stated sadly.
Mark cheeks turned red. "I didn’t mean to offend you," he stammered. “It’s just no one I know has ever talked to a tree before."
"Be that as it may, by trying to pick my special apple you are the human I must teach about respecting nature.” Abernathy looked directly into Mark’s hazel eyes. “The more people who learn to respect the rest of the life on the planet, the better it will be for all living things. We must work together to conserve the natural resources around us and to look after one another."
"I never really thought much about things like that," Mark sighed. "I just live like everyone else I know."
“Please allow me to show you what I mean. I need to wrap one of my branches around your head to do so,” Abernathy paused as Mark tensed up and fear flickered across his face. “Don’t worry, it won’t hurt.”
Mark nodded and Abernathy very carefully wrapped a slim branch around Mark’s forehead. “Close your eyes,” he murmured.
As soon as Mark closed his eyes, he saw a stream of images. People from thousands of years ago, tending to and gathering crops, sharing the fruits and vegetables with one another. Bees pollinating. Rain and sun nurturing. Birds and animals thriving on the bounty of the land. And on and on it went.
Then the images changed. Mark saw people throwing away perfectly good food, tons of garbage being bulldozed into the ground. Starving animals desperately looking for sustenance. People with nothing to eat trying to get through the day. Declining populations of bees and birds and animals. Fields decimated by drought. More devastating, sad images followed.
Abernathy gently removed the branch from Mark’s head before he spoke. “For many, many years people respected and took care of the land. How quickly you humans have forgotten. How quickly you have begun to destroy the environment, to threaten entire species of plants and animals. There is still time to change your course.”
Mark wouldn’t look at Abernathy. He didn’t know what to say.
“How often do you throw away food, rather than finishing it?” Abernathy asked. “Do you have any idea what it’s like not to have enough to eat? To go to bed hungry?”
“No,” Mark answered in a low voice. “I’ve always had more than enough and – well, I complain sometimes if my mom cooks something I don’t want to eat. Like brussels sprouts." Mark shook his head, then looked up at Abernathy. “I’m only twelve, this seems like something you should be telling an adult. What can I do? I’m just a kid.”
"Ah, but now you’re aware of the issues. You have a choice," Abernathy said. "You can help by teaching others what you have learned. You can help by not wasting food and taking care of the environment. Or by offering food to someone who doesn’t have enough to eat."
"Oh, I will. You have my word," Mark pledged.
Mark's eyes fluttered open.
"Are you okay?" his mom asked.
"What happened?" Mark moaned.
"You fell out of the apple tree," his mom said shakily. "What were you doing climbing a tree?” She ran a hand across her forehead and tried to calm herself down. “Oh honey, I’ve been so worried. You've been unconscious for nearly 10 minutes. An ambulance is on the way!”
"But the tree was talking to me," Mark said slowly.
"Oh God, we'd better take you to the hospital!" Mark's mom cried.
"No mom. I'm okay, really I am," Mark said as he tried to sit up. "I think we picked enough apples. Can we just go home now?"
"Not until the paramedics check you out,” his mom said sternly. “If they say you’re okay, we'll go straight home."
"Could we stop and drop off some apples at the food bank?" Mark asked. He saw the shock on his mom’s face.
"That's a great idea son," she managed to reply.
Once the paramedics had examined Mark and given his mom instructions about what do for the next 24 hours in case of a mild concussion, they cleared him to go home.
Mark stood and walked over to the bag of apples he'd picked. The perfect green apple sat atop the others in the bag.
"Thanks Abernathy! For everything … I won’t forget. I promise," Mark whispered as he gently placed his hand on the tree trunk.
He smiled at his mom as he picked up the bag of apples.