Speaking of cycles and circles, the leaf buds are breaking on my baby apple trees.
Anyone who knows me probably knows I am an unreconstructed botany geek and a serious fruit fetishist. I allow friends to assume we left San Francisco for the East Bay burbs for the decent public schools, but between you and me, what brought me back to the county that spawned me was the lure of summer heat and winter frosts on the east side of the coastal mountains – which meant the ability to grow fruit trees, maybe even tomatoes (known in their early days as “love apples” for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities). I have an entire collection of botanically-themed poems, my own personal de materia medica, ranging from food plants to ornamentals to psychotropics, and from the tiny to the gigantic. The last entry to be completed, the one that was still naggingly not right a year after the rest of the collection had been put to bed, and for all I know still hasn’t settled – is Malus domestica, the apple.
Few fruits are cultivated as broadly as the apple – probably only the grape has a broader range – and I can’t think of one with a deeper, more complex mythos. Nothing seems more American, yet apples are exotics here, brought from forests in the Kazakh range of the Silk Road through Europe and across the Atlantic to the American frontier. It has infiltrated myths and legends from the story of Atalanta to the Garden of the Hesperides to the Book of Genesis (yesterday I mentioned the theory – which I espouse – that the English-speaking world tends to think of the Forbidden Fruit as an apple due to a translational pun: malus, or apple, conflated with malum, or evil. Given the probable location of a Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was most likely, in my opinion, the thorny, tangling pomegranate,
whose name, incidentally, means “grenade apple.”) and beyond, far beyond. Yet there is something – isn’t there? – in the apple being the emblem of… of what? Temptation, the strange ways wholesomeness and forbiddenness combine – of the pull of wildness and the pull of cultivation.
At the root of this, so to speak, is the apple’s exceptional genetic diversity (it’s believed that in the apple’s heyday in North America, with maybe 2500 varieties, we had something like a tenth of the apple’s genes represented) and its essential waywardness. Apples are heterozygous – as are humans – but they make us look like simpletons – their genome is fully twice the size of ours. Every apple tree produces, say, a few hundred apples each season. In each apple, there are five, maybe eight, seeds. EACH of those seeds, in each of those apples, on each of those trees, will grow a different offspring plant. Most of these are bound to be unpalatable, “spitters.” Occasionally, you hit the jackpot in the gene-combining lottery and get something spectacularly delicious. When you do, you clone. Grafting fruit trees is a practice that goes far back into the ancient world, and it is the only way to ensure that the progeny of the apple resemble the parent. In other words, the apple actually does, unless you actively prevent it, fall far from the tree.
Michael Pollan, in his marvelous book The Botany of Desire, refers to the apple’s “inherent prodigality.” I love this phrase, and how it resonates against the concept of cultivation, a word that means tending, tilling, making better through effort, and comes from “cultus,” Latin for worship, reverence – and labor. In his section on apples, Pollan largely follows the trail of the mythic John Chapman, or “Johnny Appleseed,” to whom we all probably recall being introduced in elementary school – the barefoot tin-pot-hatted treehugger who sowed apple seeds all along the American frontier. One thing, Pollan notes, that’s glossed over by the Disney version is that since wild-pollinated, seedling apples have a snowball’s chance in hell of being tasty, Johnny Appleseed wasn’t providing the frontier with fruit – he was “the American Dionysus” – those apples were intended to become applejack. Chapman was a shrewd businessman as well as a half-wild “green man” figure; part pagan, part Christian (Chapman, like Yeats, was an avid follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg, who venerated the natural world as a “living sermon” on what awaits us in Heaven). Chapman’s decision to plant only seed apples was part economic savvy, part philosophy (he felt grafting and cloning were sinful and that improving the apple was God’s job). Whatever his reasons, by planting literally millions of trees and allowing them to reproduce sexually – by allowing them to express their adulterousness – he helped them to self-select for adaptability to the American landscape, and he kept alive some potential for us to continue discovering nuances and fascinating variants in this exceedingly complicated fruit.
Not that we haven’t tried our very hardest to quash all that. Even the apparent “diversity” of apples you see in a good grocery store come from only six parent varieties. Commercial concerns – reliability, long shelf life, ease of harvest and shipping, glossiness and pleasant shape, and sweetness – have dummied down the apple to a shameful degree: the mealy-mouthed Red Delicious, the syrupy children’s-menu Fuji, the one-note Granny Smith. We have domesticated the apple into submission. It’s a good thing for large-scale commercial growers – but for us?
If you’re lucky enough to have, as I do, a crazy farmer’s market orchardist who grows some 150 varieties on a small farm nearby, you might get something of a glimpse of the apple’s potential. From August to December, the guy at my market brings in apples the size of pingpong balls to apples the size of small melons. Red, pink, yellow, brown, green, purplish, striped, freckled, russetted, shiny, bloomed, broad shouldered, conical, round, angular. Textures ranging from watery-crisp to dense and dry to melting, thin skins and thick, and a range of exotic sub-flavors – all of them “apple” – that would rival any wine tasting; herbaceous, nutlike, floral, winey, citrusy, breadlike. Some of them, like the Lady Apple and Blue Pearmain, have been in cultivation since the 1100s. Some, like the Gravenstein, will only grow properly in Denmark, a portion of northwestern Russia, and the outer fringes of the San Francisco Bay Area. He brings Mutsus, Esopus Spitzenburgs, the green Pippins I remember from my childhood before they were displaced by the tough-fleshed and unsubtle Granny Smith. Rome Beauty, Northern Spy, Winesap and Macoun. Some of them, when I ask him what they are, he says he has no idea.
Constancy is a virtue the apple lacks. What we get in exchange is mystery, surprise, complexity, seduction – the chance to discover something that has never existed before. I guess I think there’s an almost Swedenborgian allegory to poetry in this. Out of an infinitely complicated system of words and silences you try to achieve some balance of traits – you cultivate, allow reversion to wildness, cultivate. My own apple poem is about “adultery” and I’ve fielded a few cocked eyebrows from early readers who presume it’s confessional. (Um, no!) What I am talking about is the apple’s own tendency to run wild. Adultery. Adulteration. Alteration. All come from the same root (ha ha) – alter, to change. This is the apple’s master skill – to prevent it requires extremely attentive cultivation. Every apple you have ever bought is a clone, a genetic replica of a parent fruit, bred for fewer and fewer traits as time goes on. There are still people, like my guy, cultivating old heirloom strains, and some even letting wildlings do their thing in the hope of finding something new and amazing. But to reap consistency from an apple, you have to make it happen. Maybe not so different from humans after all, right?
Adult: from Latin adultus, meaning grown up, mature – ripe. As a euphemism for “pornographic” it dates to 1958, per the Online Etymology Dictionary.
My obsession with food plants has caused my garden to be more laboratory than landscape, and I’ve learned to be okay with that. After killing off three different apple trees by planting them during heat waves and then going on vacation, last year I bought young whips of four new (old) varieties and started to espalier train them against the fence in my backyard. One, the Gravenstein, my Danish grandmother’s all-time favorite and one you simply won’t find in markets because it is too eccentric to be commercially viable. Early ripening, sweet-tart, firm-fleshed, with distinctive red and green stripes. Two, the Cox’s Orange Pippin, a British dessert apple from the 1850s, russetted, subacid with hints of anise and cherry. Three, The Winter Pearmain, one of the oldest continually cultivated apples, dating to 1200 or so – sweet, greenish with russet dots and crisp flesh. Four, something I got for the girls called “Pink Sparkle,” an aromatic Pearmain type with an upside-down shape and hot-pink flesh. I am hoping for first blossoms in the next few weeks. I have no idea what these trees will do, whether they will like their conditions, whether they will adapt and thrive, whether they will give consistent, delicious fruit fall after fall, or throw sports and spitters. It may be years before I find out.
So, moral of the story? Prodigality ain’t all bad. At least if you’re an apple. But maybe also necessary in the quest to be a better writer. We are about cultivation, that’s certain. But perhaps we all need, in some form, an occasional reversion to wildness – less Apollo, more Dionysus – to understand what cultivation really means. And to be able to have more to cultivate. It’s a big world.