Old Apple Tree Festival proceeds despite shutdown

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter




“Vancouver is a community that cares about its trees,” said urban forestry commissioner Tim Carper in his opening remarks at the Old Apple Tree Festival. He encouraged anyone who knows of a remarkable or historic local tree to consider nominating it for the city’s tree “hall of fame” — its Heritage Tree list.

Visit http://www.cityof... to see the list and learn more.

Fantastic weather made for a fantastic Old Apple Tree Festival on Saturday, with hundreds of people turning out to absorb history and fresh-pressed cider in the sunshine.

"If it had been last weekend, we would have been here in boats," said one member of the rootsy band Another Shade of Bluegrass during a pause in the pickin'.

"People love this," said Charles Ray, the city's urban forester, as he handed out clippings from the area's only surviving European pioneer, planted here in 1826 from seeds that sailed all the way from London -- and considered the oldest apple tree in the Pacific Northwest.

When he was commander of the Vancouver Barracks in the early 1850s, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant surely visited the tree on his daily strolls down the hill from Officers Row.

"The matriarch of the apple industry in Washington State," is how Tim Carper, a member of the city's urban forestry commission, described her.

Her? No question about it, according to Kathy Wright, a real tree hugger who was clearly in touch with the tree's true heart. "She is doing really well. I haven't seen her this big before," said Wright, who has enjoyed regular up-close-and-personal visits with the Old Apple Tree -- putting her hands on the bark of her beloved for some deep spiritual communing. That's how she knows the tree is female and a mother, she said.

"Mother Nature is a she, and we have Father Time, too," she said. "She reminds me how nature struggles against time."

But now, she added, the aging mother tree gets to be mothered by the whole community. In recent years, in the wake of a damaging storm, there's been painstaking pruning, experimental grafting and the installation of a protective wrought-iron fence -- all performed by a partnership of local, regional and federal tree specialists called the Old Apple Tree Research Team. (As one passerby put it, "That tree gets better health care than most Americans.")

Wright said she was thrilled to make it to the festival at last after always working Saturdays during her 15 years in Vancouver. Now she's headed for a rustic cabin in Montana -- right outside Glacier National Park, she said -- and she'll be bringing along a cutting from the tree to plant in the ground there, she said.

"I was raised among trees in Southeast Alaska," she said. "Bringing this little tree to Montana and helping it grow feels like coming full circle."

The shutdown of the federal government affected the festival in minor ways. Parking adjacent to the site was not available as it has been in past years. The National Park Service did not participate; a walking tour that was supposed to be guided by an NPS archaeologist, taking visitors over the land bridge to Fort Vancouver's little worker village, was deleted from the final schedule. Visitors wandered over there anyway and peered in the windows of the two little houses on the site.

But that seemed to be all.

"The government's not here, but we're here," Carper said in his opening remarks to the crowd.

If live narration and interpretation were on furlough Saturday, technology was trying to make up the difference.

Brett Oppegaard, an assistant professor at Washington State University who teaches electronic communications and digital technologies, was on hand with his ongoing volunteer project: handheld tablet devices that ask questions and offer short videos and other information about the Old Apple Tree and previous festivals -- with user responses helping the machines to tailor their offerings for each individual user. At least one of the videos featured a park ranger talking about the history of the Old Apple Tree. After that, you answered a questionnaire that asked just how interested and happy the interactive experience left you.

"I'm researching mobile technology and its potential for historic interpretation," Oppegaard said. Earlier this year, Oppegaard was recognized by the National Park Service as one of its premier volunteers nationwide, for the thousands of hours he has devoted to this project.

Georgia Maudsley is a volunteer of a different sort. She's going to take one of those Old Apple Tree cuttings, plant it in her Hazel Dell yard and do her darndest to help it thrive -- despite her own "black thumb," she said.

A previous attempt, a couple years ago, didn't go so well, Georgia and husband Ron admitted. But that's OK -- Ray, the city's urban forester, said you can do everything right with these clippings and still have a 50-50 chance of success. His multi-step instruction sheet winds up with the wise words: GOOD LUCK!

"It's a piece of history, when you realize it's 150 years old," said Georgia Maudsley as she contemplated her cutting's rich past and future possibilities. "And look at it, it's just beautiful."