Thursday, November 26

Giving Thanks

"All apples are good in November.  Those which the farmer leaves out as unsalable, and unpalatable to those who frequent the markets, are choicest fruit to the walker.  But it is remarkable that the wild apple, which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields  or woods, being brought into the house, has frequently a harsh and crabbed taste.  The Saunterer's Apple not even the saunterer can eat in the house.  The palate rejects it there, as it does haws and acorns, and demands a tamed one; for there you miss the November air, which is the sauce it is to be eaten with....These apples have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have absorbed the qualities of the weather of season, and thus are highly seasoned, and they pierce and sting and permeate us with their spirit....To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air.  The out-door air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed.  They must be eaten in the fields, when your system is all aglow with exercise, when the frosty weather nips your fingers, the wind rattles the bare boughs or rustles the few remaining leaves, and the jay is heard screaming around.  What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet.  Some of these apples might be labelled, "To be eaten in the wind."
                                                                 -Henry David Thoreau, Wild Apples

I read this passage for this first time the other day and found it speaking to me.  The late November air outside my window has seemed to strip the last of the leaves from the trees.  Only a few stubborn Oaks still cling to the brown remnants of their photosynthesizing extremities.  Having always left the orchard when picking was done, I often try to imagine, not really knowing what the trees now look like.  I imagine their are some fruit that manage to cling to the branch longer than the leaves around it.  They perhaps have lost some of their luster as they hang from a leafless branch.  To walk thought the orchard now would be a much different experience.  Wandering among skeletons, the trees might seem much smaller now without their leafy cloaks.  Perhaps there is, somewhere under a tree, the half eaten core of an apple enjoyed by a picker as they sat, back against their bin on a warm September afternoon.   I think I can relate to what Thoreau speaks of, for that same apple if placed in the bin rather than eaten by the picker on that autumn afternoon would not, in my opinion have given the same enjoyment to any other palate no matter how well kept or preserved.
I think of all the supermarkets and all the apples that are the only apples that have ever been tasted by many souls and it makes we wonder how our idea of a desirable apple might change if we placed more emphasis on how an apple tasted in the crisp autumn air, eaten among the trees from which it came, and less emphasis on how well an apple travels across the country in a box or how beautiful it looks on the produce shelf once it has arrived. 
I can only begin to imagine the complex tastes of one of Thoreau's apples found on a long walk some November afternoon.  What I am assured of is that the apples I ate while picking, usually several times a day when hunger would encourage a mid-morning or afternoon break, do not compare to any I would take from the store of apples in the basement let alone any I have ever found on a supermarket shelf.  I know that many foods taste better out of doors, but I do believe there is something that is even more exquisite about a fruit, taken from the tree not a minute before it is ripe and eaten in the grassy shade of that same tree. 
It is now November and the only apples left on the trees are no doubt better suited to fall in their own time than to be plucked by my hand.  The apples in storage, although perfect for sauce, butter or a crisp would not provide the same gustatory  experience as they would have two months ago when my hand briefly grasped them between the tree and my picking bucket.
I  am well aware that what I propose puts into question my own work as an apple picker, the thing that brought be to the orchard in the first place.  I accept my place as a picker, a provider of fruit to those who do not venture out into the orchards, or the woods among apple trees wild and grafted.  As we celebrate this time of "Thanksgiving" I find myself feeling cynical in my perception of what I believe to be a great detachment from the harvest and bounty that we are fain to celebrate and give thanks for.  If one's knowledge of an apple goes no further than the produce section of the supermarket or even the local farm stand, are they really able to conceive the true nature of  the apple, whether it be a wild one found on one of Thoreau's saunters in the woods or a Macoun, Pippin or Ida Red taken from a tree in the long rays of an October afternoon.  I wish for every person who desires to feel truly thankful for what is continually provided to us to at least once in their life walk the circumference of an apple tree searching for that one apple that calls out to them, pick it and polish its skin with the inside of their shirt, lean against the trunk among the fallen leaves and half rotting apples and enjoy the apple in its juicy simplicity.

Thursday, November 19

Story of an Apple: McIntosh

Although it is not personally one of my favorite apples, I thought it appropriate to introduce the McIntosh apple, being as it is the parent by hybridization of many other apple cultivars.  This apple dates back to 1811, to a tree discovered by John McIntosh on his farm in Dundela County, Ontario Canada.
John was the son of a Scottish immigrant, who was a loyalist during the American Revolution.  Born in the Mohawk Valley of New York state in 1777, John moved to Ontario Canada in his early twenties.  He settled in what was then Matilda township and began clearing his newly acquired land.  During this process  he discovered a number of seedling apple trees.  He decided to transplant them to his garden, but by the next year only one had survived the cold Canadian winter.
After tending this survivor for several years the tree finally began to bare fruit.  The fruit it bore -  green apple with a distinct deep red blush - would ultimately be named the Red McIntosh by the man who discovered it.
In an attempt to propagate his new found apple John planted several of it's seeds, only to discover what many after him also would; that apples grown from a seed often show no resemblance to the apple from which they came (I plan to cover this phenomenon in detail in a later post).  In the 1830's John and his son Allen welcomed a visitor to their farm who as luck would have it, was able to show them how to graft a cutting from his prised McIntosh tree onto the base of another apple tree.  With the new found ability to propigate the McIntosh through grafting, the family began to develop a full fledged nursery and by the late 1830's John's sons Allen and Alexander had taken over the family business.
The original tree which John had transplanted into his garden survived the nineteenth century, although it was severely damaged by a fire in 1896.  In 1908 over a hundred years after the tree had been discovered in bore it's last crop.
In the years since the McIntosh has gained significant popularity around the world.  In its homeland it accounts for over half the apples grown each year.
Today many different varieties of the McIntosh exist.  Among them are:
  • Hampshire Mac
  • Linda Mac
  • Marshall McIntosh
  • Mor-Spur McIntosh
  • Pioneer McIntosh
  • Rogers Red McIntosh
  • Scotian Spur McIntosh
  • Summerland Red McIntosh
  • Spotted McIntosh

The McIntosh or Mac as it is often called is a fairly early season apple, usually one of the first of the popular fall varieties to be picked.  For pickers it can be a very frustrating apple to pick due to the fact that it is incredibly soft and very easy to bruise.  It comes off the tree very easily however, which makes them easy to pick quickly, but also allows them to fall to the ground if you even look at them the wrong way.  Picking a branch of Macs can often be like playing Jenga; if you reach for the wrong apple first you may loose half the branch.  Thus the skill of a good seasoned apple picker is often evident in their ability to pick Macs well.  

Tuesday, November 10

End of the Season

Picking bags have been hung up for the season, ladders collected from the orchard.  Pickers have gone on their way, heading to places like Pittsburgh, Asheville, Portland (Maine) and Hawaii.  Some not sure where they will even end up next as they pack up their belongings and head off in cars, on buses or motorcycles.  "The trellis" is always the last block of trees to be picked, mostly cider apples some of them being sold to other orchards.  It was a very good crop this year.  I spent my last afternoon picking a few good Mutsu apples that were left and then Macouns, slightly overripe and small, but still perfectly good for cider.  The air was cool and as clouds rolled in as the day drew close to an end far before it seemed like it should, as the light faded I headed out of town moving on to my own unknown place.

The past few months all of a sudden seem to have passed more quickly than I thought.  Being one of the last to leave the bunkhouse felt very empty as I packed up a car full of possessions that had made my little corner of the otherwise bare bunkhouse feel like home to me.  Trudging through leaves that had not even shown a tint of color let alone any hit of falling when I first arrived, I feel a certain melancholia that one often feels when leaving a place or people that have come to hold significance.  If even for a short time, this place, the bunkhouse, the long rows of apple trees, the picking bag hung over my shoulders, have all grown to feel familiar, stability in a fleeting world.   

All the apples are in and the last of the leaves are falling to the ground covering the apples that have already begun to decompose.  I wonder how many times some of the molecules in an apple have been recycled as a tree nourishes itself with it's own fallen fruit.

Tuesday, November 3

Turning Leaves Falling Apples

 "When the apple is ripe it will fall." -- Irish proverb

 Its amazing to me sometimes how quickly the light changes this time of year.  Not just the length of the day, but the quality of the light.  It seems as the days grow shorter the shadows longer and the light more golden.  The past week has felt very fleeting as many of the remaining leaves have fallen off of the trees.  Many of the apple trees have also begun to turn a burnt golden, creating a great contrast with the dark reds and purples of the apples remaining among their branches.  Those apples that somehow hid behind the leaves in September can no longer camouflage themselves among the leaves that now so exquisitely compliment their hue.  Below many of the apple trees lies a blanket of overripe apples, which can make picking difficult.  Scrambling between trees with a half full picking bucket while walking on a layer of partially decomposing apples is like trying to keep your balance on marbles.  The  pungent smell of vinegar wafts up occasionally greeting your nose with an odor that provides a gentle reminder of the cyclic nature of life.  When you go to dump your apples into the bin you often discover that the number of leaves that have fallen into your bag often out numbers the apples.
I have never picked into November before.  The long rays of the sun have begun to remind me too closely of a crisp December day and the temperature at dusk too closely mimics that of a winter evening.  All of the crab apple trees that are planted for pollination in among the Empires have lost almost all their leaves.  While a golden carpet surrounds their trunks, the crab apples themselves still cling to the branches, their red clusters stark against the brown branches of the tree, which reach out, almost begging for the first snow to cover them.
These first days of November feel very peaceful in the orchard.  The early morning seems to blend right into the late afternoon and midday starts to seem like a distant summer memory.  Reaching into the flaxen leaves to pick an apple, I know not whether to treasure more highly the leaves which will tomorrow turn brown, or the apple which almost seems to fall into my hand as I grasp it.

There is only a few more days of picking and the word in the orchard is that they may run out of bins before they run out of apples to put in them; the consequence of a good crop.  It gets dark at five now and the walk home in the dusk is often filled with the sent of wood smoke.  It feels good to be part of the last days of harvests, there is something very rewarding about getting in the last of the fruit.  There is also something very lonely, almost haunting however about seeing all the empty trees around you.  There is a comfort however in remembering the fruit they once bore, for it is a reminder of what is to come.