DG is losing a tree and a tradition

by DG Martin

You’ve heard about the tree.

And you also know the story about this Mattamuskeet Apple tree that grew in my neighbor’s front yard and the wonderful tradition it represented.

If you know me, you’ve heard me tell the story until your eyes glazed over. If you regularly read this column, you’ve read about it.

Now the tree is gone and the story has to change. It’s not a happy one anymore.

Just in case you’ve somehow missed my telling of the original tale, here is a summary.

Every fall, I ‘stole’ a few small, gnarled green apples from my neighbor’s tree. He knew, but didn’t complain.’ 

As a part of an annual ritual, I peeled a few of these apples, cut them up, removed the rotten parts, took out the worms, and made a cobbler that was fun to share with the tree’s owner and with a few friends who appreciated its tradition.

This little ritual meant more to me than the good eating and the sharing with friends.

The tree came to Chapel Hill as a young sapling from Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County. According to legend, the variety originated when the Mattamuskeet Indians found the seeds in the gizzard of a wild goose. It is well adapted for the coastal region because it keeps well ‘— perhaps because it is very acidic when first picked and then keeps well in storage as it mellows.

All this is important, but my love for this little apple tree had more to do with how and why it came to Chapel Hill.

Because the tree’s former owner, HG Jones, was curator of the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of the NC Department of History and Archives, local history groups all over the state invited him to speak at their meetings.

When they offered payment for his talks, Jones refused. As an employee of the state and the university, he said, ‘“such visits were a part of my job. But, word got around that I would accept an apple pie. And most of the groups I spoke to would give me one to take home when I finished my talk.’”

A number of years ago, he went to Hyde County to talk about the history of Lake Mattamuskeet and the surrounding region. Jones was surprised when, after his talk, nobody presented him with the traditional apple pie.

A few days later, the Mattamuskeet Apple sapling arrived and was planted in his front yard. Adapted as it was for the coastal climate, the little tree nevertheless thrived in the Piedmont soils of Chapel Hill.

My ritual of the Mattamuskeet Apple cobbler has been a continuing reminder of the unselfish, extraordinary service of Jones, his university colleagues, and other state employees ‘— ‘“because it is just part of the job.’”

A few months ago, when Jones told me he was selling his home and moving to a retirement community, I should have known my treasure was at risk. How could the new owners be expected to know that this funny looking tree was a treasure?

But I didn’t remember a responsibility all of us have. It is to tell newcomers about the traditions that go with the territory they have taken over.

I didn’t do my job.’ 

This spring I looked forward to watching the tree’s blooms burst forth again and hoped for the autumn harvest that would make its way into my ritual cobbler.

Last week when I walked by to check on the tree, its buds were indeed pushing out from the branches. But the branches were on the ground along with the supporting limbs and the trunk that had been hacked apart.

My favorite tree is gone.

Nothing but a ghost from now on, my living icon turned into a mere memory.

The words on the newly relocated memorial to Thomas Wolfe on the Chapel Hill campus came rushing to mind

‘ ‘“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again!’”

I will just have to find other ways to remember what Jones did and what we should do. Maybe, somehow, someday, another sapling will make its way from Lake Mattamuskeet to Chapel Hill to help us never to forget.