You can buy autumn produce in the stores, but if that were enough, why do the country u-pick places fill this time of year with customers? Cars nuzzle in the dirt parking lots hood to tailpipe, fender to fender; extra help directs overflow traffic to otherwise unused fields. Inside the barn or outbuilding where the cash registers live, harried parents make last-minute decisions about whether to buy their broods hayrides or food for the donkeys. There is a brisk side business in ice-cream sandwiches, humorous rustic postcards, and freshly fried donuts. When the sky is blue and the wind is still, it can be a heavenly experience, the earthly curtain call that seems as if it will never end in a darkened, shut-up theater.
Going out to see fruits and vegetables on trees and in the dirt rather than on a shelf in aisle three satisfies an ancient fantasy. The day after men discovered cities, they hankered for the countryside. The desire runs from Theocritus to Jefferson to Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor. We are not there ourselves anymore, yet we know we once were, and we understand, however sketchily, that our next meal will have begun there. Behind both the tasting menu and the frozen TV dinner lurks the farm. Earth is mother, and for those too denatured to have any experience of the fact, culture, high and pop, supplies a hundred clues. Even the digitalized sex mania that is 92 percent of our intake (in this particular election cycle, make that 98 percent) gives a hint: What are the divas and selfie-takers but fertility goddesses decked out in bling and not much else? Taking a day-long agrication is fun, a little exciting, a little atavistic, but mostly consoling, because Mother never lets us down.
Except when she does. We were driving, as we drive every October, to the hillside orchard of the agronomist. For ten bucks, you get a bag of apples and a lecture on the history of every variety. The way goes past the spring pipe — a never-failing rope of water, where people go to fill plastic jugs when their pumps fail, or for any other reason. Doug was parked there, so we stopped. We told him our destination; he said, don’t bother. There was a late frost in the spring; there is not one apple in the entire valley. We had heard about the frost in April when it happened, after a warm March; at the time we thought we had heard that it nipped all the peach buds, but nothing else. Yet when we drove on, past the Trump signs and the abandoned farm and the pokeweed, we were greeted at the orchard by a hand-lettered sign confirming Doug’s account.
We inquired, in person and online. The owner of the biggest u-pick place has a parvenu surname, since his ancestor arrived in the valley only in the 19th century, but the ancestor wed the daughter of a family that had arrived in the 17th century, so he became native by marriage. The 21st-century farmer was selling pumpkins, late tomatoes, late sweet corn, late raspberries, anything and everything he can coax out of the ground. He had had a few apples, but they were sold long ago. The Italians who bought a little old farm on a back road and made it as artsy as Tuscany — we call it (not to them, of course) sprezzatura in campagna — had al fresco oven-roasted pizza, homemade hard cider, and a selection of books on country living. But no apples. The rambling, shambling hilltop orchard that never sprays, and looks it, yet somehow goes on from year to year, had no apples. But the website of the biggest orchard in the valley said they had some.
This orchard is behind the fancy town — the one with a handful of old stone houses, an old wooden barn, an old inn, a grange (that is now something else), a church (still praying), and an old stone library. I bought a de-accessioned book there once, The Cape Cod Lighter, a collection of “23 new stories” by John O’Hara; it was published in 1962, and the withdrawal slip pasted to the first page said it had been checked out twice, in 1976 and 1988. Behind this town is a big, rolling orchard. They have buildings with cider presses, refrigeration, storage for crates. The trees march in rows up and down an undulating landscape. We got our picker poles — long handles bearing metal baskets with clawed ends, like angry lacrosse sticks — and drove in.
On a normal October day, the place would be jammed. The path for cars splits, to accommodate coming and going vehicles. No need for that now. Some trees were actually leafless, most were simply barren of fruit. Had there been a battle here? A blight? There was not a soul to be seen.
We had been told there were some Romes past the pond, at the bottom of the orchard. The ground fell off to a large-ish pond, paved in duckweed. Finally, a row of trees, with one parked car.
In normal years, the fallen apples lie underfoot; you discard anything blemished, and of the other ones you take a bite, and then cast the sample away. Now, apple picking was a treasure hunt: You squinted, against the sun, for dark round shapes. Then you reached up, between spindly, sharp, small branches, to snatch a fruit, or to jog the limb on which it hung, hoping to make it fall.
The Rome apple is a big red beauty, discovered in Ohio in the early 1800s, prized for its color and size. The few we got were red, but the size of golf balls. Some were folded, like grimacing old people. Chickadees scolded, a hawk circled overhead. After half an hour we had a bag and a half — a small bag and a half.
It was worth it, for the chase and the lesson. Mother loves you, but not always enough.