While many were using the internet to Facebook friends or Youtube a favorite homemade video, this grass/apple whisperer was Google-‘ing for inspiration on wild apple lore while raising a ceremonial, tart cup of un-pasteurized, hand-pressed cider to the taste-buds. The cool thing about surfing the web is that sometimes you are reunited with the past.
It’s good to have my wild friends back in production after the early frost and drought of 2012 which decimated the local harvest. Or was it Mother Nature’s way of resting the fruit trees for a greater purpose?
As the morning sun peeked through the changing hues of foliage, I found myself morphed back to Walden’s pond in 1862 reading Henry David Thoreau’s book entitled “Wild Apples” where he celebrated the iconic tree and its fruit:
“Every wild apple shrub excites our expectation thus, somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise. What a lesson to man! So are human beings, referred to the highest standard, the celestial fruit which they suggest and aspire to bear, browsed on by fate; and only the most persistent and strongest genius defends itself and prevails, sends a tender scion upward at last, and drops its perfect fruit on the ungrateful earth.”
I wish I could converse with my ancestors to find out what kind of apple tree varieties dot our draws and hillsides. I must be getting older because I have played around these secret groves as a child, never thinking any deeper beyond which tree climbed the best. But now I am starting to see through the blinders of my ungrateful youth to fully appreciate these natural assets.
My fascination with the unknown reds, greens, yellows and even purple mystery varieties came at the hands of farmers who abandoned my pasture walk in favor of the “trees”. As I listened to their crispy chomping and critiques of which would make a good pie apple, it reminded me of the flavor intricacies in grass-finished beef or of wine tasting.
Liberty Hyde Bailey had it right when he posed this question,
“Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate taste. If he wants twenty or forty kinds of apples for his personal use…he should be accorded the privilege. There is merit in variety itself. It provides more contact with life, and leads away from uniformity and monotony.”
Upon researching these organic gems I learned about the terrific health benefits that keeps the doctor away. One medium apple contains only 80 calories and the pectin in apples lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. French researchers found that a flavanoid called phloridzin that is found only in apples may protect post-menopausal women from osteoporosis and may also increase bone density. Boron, another ingredient in apples, also strengthens bones.
People who eat two apples per day may lower their cholesterol by as much as 16 percent. A study on mice at Cornell University found that the quercetin in apples may protect brain cells from the kind of free radical damage that may lead to Alzheimer’s disease and other research shows that the pectin in apples reduces the risk of colon cancer and helps maintain a healthy digestive tract.
Health benefits aside, the wild trees conjure up a deeper value for the farm. Yea, it’s the one you can’t exactly put a price on. The sacred branches are prized by dowsers to find water. The dead wood cut to flavor charcoal for a prize-winning brisket. Big bucks and tom turkeys are drawn to harvest the drops or rub the velvet off. The pollinators use the blossoms and the birds make nests in the canopy. And the roots bind the soil while the cascading shade cools livestock.
Thoreau even talks about the spiritual nature of the majestic tree when farmers practiced “apple howling” on New Year’s Eve, honoring them in ceremony to bear well the next season. This salutation consisted of “throwing some of the cider about the roots of the tree and then, “encircling one of the best bearing trees in the orchard and reciting the following toast three times:
‘Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Bushel, bushel, sacks-full!
And my pockets full, too! Hurrah!'”
I’ll go so far as to say wild apples build community…
In the last two years, there has been a kind of renaissance surrounding the fruit in waiting due to the anticipation of hosting apple harvesting parties for my farming neighbors. In years past, the apples would simply fall to the ground and feed the soil, wildlife and cattle with a few bushels going into apple sauce. Now that the secret is out on the quality of these old-world varieties, my friends can no longer accept them as worm food and show up with smiles, ladders and apple crates when they get the phone message of—– fruit on!
Harvesting apples by agile moms, dads and climbing children hardly seems like real work compared to my brief stint picking drops from the ground while fighting off the Yellow Jackets for 25 cents a bushel at a local orchard. When you have 15 family pickers it’s pretty easy to fill the bed of a pick-up and still have time to relax in the warm sun of September lying in the pasture munching on a piece of history.
Some would say, why don’t you charge for the privilege to pick your wild apples? Well, I suppose it has merit being organic and all, but for at least 40 years no one has done much of anything with the forgotten fruit except let the drops fatten animals. From my vantage point, I feel rewarded beyond monetary gain that our farm and my ancestor’s sweat equity have once again nourished fellow farm families with over 120 gallons of cider, countless jars of apple sauce, many pies, pomace for their animals and stories: Lots of stories.
The wild apple of our eye is in receiving the fruits from our friend’s labor with countless quarts of cider, apple jelly and one secret-recipe, caramel-encrusted apple pie from Kristine Weaver which I have aptly anointed; “Heaven Pie”.
An unknown author once said, “Climb a tree – it gets you closer to heaven.” I say, bite into a wild apple and you’re already there.