Until an ice storm brought it down, a glorious old apple tree stood by our bunkhouse in Eden.
I loved that tree because it really had character: twisted and gnarled, it bore remnants of barbed wire in its cambium; its trunk was nearly hollow with decay, but it always produced an abundance of blossoms and delicious fruit.
I was especially pleased to discover that old derelict from the past was indeed a Northern Spy, once very popular in orchards at the turn of the century.
That wonderful tree played a significant role in events of my first winter at Timber Trails.
On moving day, a wild turkey gobbler greeted my arrival. It stood at the top of the drive, a symbol of wildness in this forest. Still, it was several months before this young gobbler returned to join a deer we called Virginia at the old apple tree.
Bergmann's Rule is an intriguing proposition that certain birds and mammals often range in size according to latitude in North America. The rule is well demonstrated among races of whitetail deer, when we consider the smallest Key deer in Florida, its larger cousins, and finally the largest of them all, the Virginia whitetail of the Northeast.
Our Virginia made her first appearance soon after apples had fallen from the Northern Spy. That mass of rotting fruit slowly turned to cider after early frost. After nightfall, I often saw Virginia under the apple tree, reveling in the feast. Of course, the supply couldn't last forever, but others shared our affection for the deer and brought baskets of fresh apples to dump beneath the tree. I contributed a bale of hay and a nightly ration of crushed oats. Virginia was obviously still too timid to come around in daylight.
Heavy snows blanketed Timber Trails soon after Thanksgiving, and when Virginia eventually learned that oats were stored in the bunkhouse, she sometimes came in the morning, just to stand under the tree and stare at the bunkhouse door.
One night, after Christmas, there had been an exceptionally bad snowstorm, and the deer had to scrape deeply with her hooves in order to find the apples. It was a beautiful winter morning, and snow crystals sparkled in bright sunshine. Suddenly, a wild turkey flew in for a landing at Virginia's side. I could see that it was a young gobbler. He started pecking so close that she frequently butted him aside.
The visits of the turkey became more regular. Whenever Virginia came to the apple tree, the turkey promptly joined her.
Dr. Steve Eaton of St. Bonaventure University conducted extensive research on the status of the wild turkey in Western New York, noting a clear dependence of these birds upon a deer population. He observed that wild turkey increased in our area only after the deer began moving in from Pennsylvania.
With their heavy bodies and short legs, these birds could not possibly cope with the deep snows of a northern winter without a substantial deer herd to pack the snow down and thus expose the winter mast -- beechnuts, rotting apples, etc.
I learned much about this special relationship by watching Virginia and her big, feathered companion. When not feeding together, she lay down with the gobbler guarding her flank. He'd gaze across the frozen meadow, while the deer kept her ears cocked toward the ravine -- mutual security.
Such was the scene in early April when Gertrude Webster came out to Eden for a visit. She was not only rewarded with a good look at the deer and turkey gobbler, but the sight of a ruffled grouse feeding on swollen buds in the old apple tree.
Not long after that marvelous climax to the eventful winter of 1965, the turkey disappeared. He signaled his restlessness and impending departure at daybreak: one very loud "gobble" directly below my bedroom window -- enough to jolt me from a sound sleep.
Left alone by her apple tree, one day Virginia put on a wild display. I had never before witnessed such a frolic. Suddenly, she decided to run at a full gallop, first around the barn, then leaping over several bushes, once over the garden wall, and finally back to her starting point. After only a few minutes to catch her breath, Virginia was off again, running and leaping around the barn and back.
A rifle shot slammed into the side of our bunkhouse. I saw two boys crouched on Larkin Road, pointing toward Virginia. Although the deer season had officially closed many months earlier, this shocking event warned me that, even in a nature preserve, a deer is never safe -- especially if she has found an old apple tree and loses her fear of humans.
Fortunately, Virginia and the gobbler are both gone now -- completely wild and free.