As I make my weekend rounds to area orchards, I hear that the Maine apple crop didn’t fare as well as in years past.

When I arrived at Rocky Ridge Orchards in Bowdoin to pick up a peck of apples, cider and a homemade doughnut or two, I noticed a handwritten sign scrawled on a piece of cardboard, admonishing folks to limit their picking to 30 pounds. Even though I don’t need that quantity of apples, the news makes me very blue.

It seems the frigid weather of last January has harmed the harvest, making my favorite fruit less plentiful. I try to remember if it was really that much colder than any other winter I’ve experienced in my 22 years here. With the frozen ground, the thick ice and the plunging temperatures, I marvel at the fact that anything, including me, survives a Maine winter at all.

A week later, I took a sunny drive to Clark’s Cove Farm on the Bristol Peninsula to check out the apples there. Same story. Beautiful apples, mind you; just fewer than in previous years. Later in the month, a pleasant Sunday afternoon is spent riding to Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, then there’s a midweek trip to Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus.

A wagon-ride tradition

I fondly remember all the years of October weekends picking apples there with my four girls. Now, my daughter Katie takes my grandson to the orchard on Route 9 to capture apples and ride in the same wagon, pulled by plodding Clydesdale horses, that she rode in when she was a small girl. Addison clutches an apple in his chubby hands and chews on it until there’s nothing left but the stem and a few seeds.

The owners’ children are the same ages as my youngest two and it always sets me back a bit when I see them every October, taller, stronger, more grown-up and beautiful than they were the previous autumn. It seems I’ve marked their lives by the readiness of the apples.

On a Monday morning, I peel some of the Cortlands, Ida Reds and Macs collected in Bowdoin, Manchester, Walpole and Sabattus to make a pie for my son-in-law, Frank. I peel them slowly with deliberate intention, wondering what my life would be like without apples.

Raised in upstate New York’s apple country, I assumed everyone grew up with apples. Great heaps of them. In my mother’s house, the crisp red harbinger of autumn was taken for granted.

The trees surrounded us in long luminous rows, standing at attention to form a semicircle of plenty. When summer yielded to the biting temperatures of October, all hands were made available to harvest the drops after the pickers filled the massive wooden crates and carried them away in tractor-drawn wagons. Bushels of apples were tucked away in the fruit cellar for us to enjoy the whole year through. We may have gone without a few things, although what I can’t recall, but one thing I know for certain, we never went without apples.

This fall my father’s health isn’t as robust as it once was, and my mother is busy taking care of him. I doubt she has the time or inclination to wander the orchard picking up drops. My childhood home is closed up for the first time, perhaps forever, perhaps for only a season. My parents will winter at the cottage by the lake, a smaller and easier-to-care- for home with a soothing view.

I’m sad to report the orchard, in its entire emerald and ruby splendor, has been sold. Rumor has it that a developer intends to plow down the trees to make room for a subdivision. I pray this isn’t true. In my mind, the world doesn’t need more subdivisions. It needs more orchards. It needs more apples.

This month, as I travel to my favorite orchards here in Maine, I realize I’m not just seeking apples. I’m looking for the comfort of the familiar. Upon my return home from each small journey, I heap my crimson treasures into wooden bowls and substantial platters. I make applesauce for the freezer, pies and crisps for company, and eat an apple every afternoon.

I commemorate my rare heritage by buying a signed print of a bumpy branch burgeoning with ripe, red apples and display it with much pride and affection over the living room mantel, making this new house my home.

I contemplate planting an apple tree in the far corner of the backyard where I could admire it from my kitchen window. The image of my grandson standing beneath it one day clutching a half-chewed apple not only makes me smile, it fills me with comfort and contentment, and gives me a bushel basket full of something more.

Something that feels like hope.

Karen Carlton is a freelance writer living in West Bath, who is a regular contributor to this column. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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