His farm is off a dead-end road that runs up into the hills; it sits in a natural amphitheater, like a giant NASCAR stadium built by the Romans and worn by time. The driveway in and the lower slopes are lined with apple trees.
Commercial orchards, still fighting the spread of tract houses, roll back from the Thruway and the state roads of the Hudson Valley. They grow apples for cider, or for supermarket shelves, to be displayed between the tangerines and the endives. This orchard is a much smaller operation, half U-pick for locals and leaf peepers, half obsession. The grower is an agronomist by profession. In a bad year, like this rain-soaked one, he begins by asking his clients to tell him what they like about farming; he knows they will be free with their complaints. After hours, he tends his apple army.
Apple trees look like people on parade, and harvesting apples is people-intensive. The trees stand in ranks. Their limbs resemble arms, stretching or signaling. In their youth the branches are encouraged by wooden braces to grow away from one another, and the weight of their fruit when they are heavy laden pulls them to the horizontal. The right way to pick an apple is to twist it up and see if it is ripe enough to slip off its stem. The long poles with baskets at their ends, like plastic lacrosse sticks, can produce the same motion, when nudged up from below, but crudely. The big growers bring in squads of Jamaicans or Central Americans to harvest their crop. My neighbor has his son, and together they can pick a lot of apples, but the grass is strewn with the ones that fell away before they could be plucked.
We associate apples with the fall of man, but that seems to be a late thought. Genesis speaks only of “the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden.” Milton’s Satan speaks of “those fair apples.” By Cole Porter, they have become pure sex.
You’ve got what Adam craved when he
With love for Eve was tortured.
She only had an apple tree,
But you, you’ve got an orchard.
But how can that be true of what our mothers used to put in our lunch bags? One a day keeps the doctor away; one on the head made Newton think of gravity. How can anything so fresh be an occasion for sin?
Left to themselves, apples mutate uncontrollably, so growers employ grafts to make sure they get what they want. Agricultural-research stations produce new varieties by careful cross-fertilization. But once in a while, some new seedling pops up that everyone decides he likes; such varieties often retain the word “pippin” (Middle English for seed) in their names.
Some varieties do go back only a few centuries shy of Chaucer. Calville Blanc d’Hiver is a Norman apple from the late 16th century; Fameuse is a Québécois from the 17th. The Newtown Pippin is not a misremembering of Sir Isaac, but an 18th-century New Yorker, first grown in what is now Elmhurst, Queens (Newtown Creek is now an industrial toilet). Esopus Spitzenberg appeared in 1790, very close to the orchard I’m talking about: The Esopus River runs into the creek in my valley, before they both flow into the Hudson. These are all wonderful pungent fruits — my neighbor describes biting into a Calville Blanc d’Hiver as like having your ears twisted — but in the last half century they fell by the wayside, largely thanks to their looks. Calville Blanc d’Hiver is yellow-green and bulbous, Esopus Spitzenberg is yellow and red, Newtown Pippin is often russeted, or marked by rough brown streaks. In the mass market they were supplanted by apples like Macintosh and Red Delicious, red and sturdy enough to survive shipping: fine fruits in themselves, but a bit drained of zest by overproduction.
A lover can be next door to a bore, unless he persuades you to share his love: His world is the world for him. Apples have histories and genealogies, like hill tribes. Flavor and flesh suit them to different destinies: pies, cider, eating from the hand. Their ripening rolls through the season like Anglican church holidays: Some early ripeners are ready in September, when everyone is still thinking about baseball and last cookouts; in high latitudes, the late finishers race to be done before the frost ruins them.
If apples are one of the oldest crops in this part of the world, their diseases and insect predators must be one of the second oldest. Large orchards have no alternative to spraying. My neighbor, off by himself with only a few acres, can spray less, but he does spray some. Where apples are concerned all green is not sustainable. He can note the behavior of his enemies with amusement. One bug typically injects its eggs into plums, but sometimes it makes the mistake of impregnating an apple. But in that case, when the larvae stir, they can’t pierce the apple skin, and the fruit becomes their tomb. All my pretty ones? Did you say all?
But most of the time the apple tree is a sturdy and amenable creature. After its apples and leaves fall, it stands naked all winter. Ice can maim it, but it does not bother about snow. In the spring it wraps itself in a turban of blossoms. When it becomes old and unfruitful, morel mushrooms grow at its feet. A thrifty grower will not let that happen; he culls his old trees (the wood is excellent for smoking), and plants young ones. They look fragile as a kindergartner’s stick drawing, but they get right to work, putting out blossoms, and soon enough fruits.
On early fall weekends my wife and I would walk the aisles of our neighbor’s supermarket, filling half-peck bags. He filled the corners with crabs, and made sure we were topped off. By now his surplus is in the cooler.