by Natalie Tomlin
Even before I became a mother, I thought apples would save me. That is, organic apples. Ever since I hit college and started caring about these kinds of things, I followed the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen,” a continually-updated list of produce that contained the most pesticides. Along with spinach, strawberries, and grapes, apples were always at the top of the list. With grapes, the solution was easy: I just stopped buying them altogether because I always found them a bit too sweet. But I couldn’t give up berries and apples, so I committed to organic, which were mostly shipped in from Washington or even Australia to my home in Ann Arbor and then Chicago.
And then Gabe was born, and apples were suddenly everywhere: sauced and handed out in plastic pouches at library story time, abandoned under the kitchen table with two bites taken out, pale flesh browning at the edges. Apparently, in the U.S., apples are the most popular fruit for children, so my conviction to stick with organic became more important than ever. Then in 2017, when Gabe was two, an act to ban a pesticide commonly used on apples, chlorpyrifos, was shot down by EPA Administrator Scott Pruit. Environmental organizations pointed out that exposure to chlorpyrifos had been linked to neurological and developmental disorders, especially in babies and children. As I researched, I realized that my concern with pesticides went beyond my own child, as farmworkers and those living nearby orchards were getting sick.
It was after nine on Saturday when we arrived, after a hypnotic, forty-five-minute ride from our home on a one-way highway lined with lush trees. Cars were already lining the shoulders next to giant signs: Crane Orchard U Pick and Corn Maze. This was probably the orchard I had heard about on Facebook, where my friends tagged pictures of their kids sitting in an oversized Adirondack chair. Crane’s had cider and doughnuts, a winery, and a restaurant, but we passed by, instead pulling into a small dirt parking lot. The only other car there was my friend Candice’s grey Volvo. We let our little boys, Gabe and Tommy, run back and forth in front of an old barn and a yard of goats. The smell of mud was cut by a slight chill.
It was the second week of October, and oddly, the temperature was only beginning to turn; we wore light coats with sweatshirts underneath. We had reached Evergreen Lane, the only organic orchard I could find, and a gregarious, almost professorial middle-aged man named Tom approached from the house nearby. He began giving us a tour, throwing in jokes right away, introducing us to B.C., or Barn Cat, who walked above us in the rafters. Because I wanted to get some dirt on organic apples, I told him I was a writer, and he briskly delved into the life cycle of apple worms. I couldn’t keep up, following him through the back of the barn, past the other side of the goat yard. He explained how the varieties of apples were mapped out in the orchard, which would prove impossible to remember later as we picked. It’s a very small harvest this year, he said. Don’t go past the driveway to the right, watch out for poison ivy.
And then Tom left us. The trees were heavy and morning sunlight scattered across the orchard, touching on red fruit nestled in glossy leaves or cradled in the grass. And that’s where I decided to linger, choosing from the wind fallen. I zeroed in and scrutinized which were still salvageable. Most were covered in ugly freckles and black bruises, but I rescued some. Gabe and Tommy had taken off as if flung from a slingshot. They worked from eye level, throwing everything they touched into their barrels and running onto the next tree. They came together often to look inside each other’s barrels, with lots of banter and commentary.
It was a successful trip on all counts, but after we offered the goats apples and drove away with our haul, I wondered what exactly the core of the picking experience was. Was it our physical proximity to our food, an intimacy that would somehow help us appreciate eating more deeply? Or was it the simple work of picking, which assumed some heightened, spiritual quality? The tradition felt simultaneously holy and passed down without a lot of reflection.
Later, I reached out to Tom for an interview. We never did connect, but I did some research, stumbling upon an NPR story about an orchard not far from Evergreen Lane dedicated to conventional produce. With warmer winters and hotter summers, orchards that normally dealt with two rounds of codling moths were now dealing with a third, which resulted in the need to spray more pesticides. For apples now getting sunburned by heat, calcium carbonate needed to be applied as a sunscreen. And then there was russeting, explained by farmer Schwallier, which are brownish splotches that happen when the temperature drops after the apples have started growing. “They eat just fine, but we throw them in the juice because they’ve got this defect,” he explained.
In “Wild Apples, The History of the Apple-Tree,” Thoreau’s 1862 essay published in The Atlantic, Thoreau emerges as the preeminent hipster picker, detailing his persona as a “walker,” which is distinguished by heightened taste and perception: “The farmer thinks that he has better in his barrels, but he is mistaken, unless he has a walker’s appetite and imagination, neither of which can he have.” In his celebration of the wild apple or ‘the crab,’ Thoreau mines heavily on the noble savage trope: “Here on this rugged and woody hill-side has grown an apple-tree, not planted by man, no relic of a former orchard, but a natural growth, like the pines and oaks…” he says. Predictably, Thoreau eventually draws his kinship to this wild apple, who is both an immigrant and a rebel, and sounding a bit like a brash Anthony Bourdain, he bashes the farmer’s curation: “Their “Favorites” and “None-suches” and “Seek-no-farthers,” when I have fruited them, commonly turn out very tame and forgettable. They are eaten with comparatively little zest, and have no real tang nor smack to them.”
For Thoreau, picking allows him to bypass the arbiters of taste to establish his own. While I was most certainly picking super tame, cultivated apples at Evergreen Lane, I wanted to see how Thoreau honed in on the experience of picking itself, including how he views farmers as middlemen that cut the holiness out of the apple. He describes ladders among the trees and the farmer selecting a barrel for an order and in essence, tainting the splendor: “He turns a specked one over many times before he leaves it out…he rubs off all the bloom, and those fugacious ethereal qualities leave it.” But while wild apples deliver the quintessential untamed experience, Thoreau doesn’t rule out picking at planted, domesticated orchards, but only if he can arrive to the party late, an edgy scavenger even into the start of November: “…if you are a skillful gleaner, you may get many a pocket-full even of grafted fruit, long after apples are supposed to be gone out-of-doors,” he says.
Now, this was the superciliousness I was craving. Thoreau is punk rock in his breaking down of the hierarchy. “He is mistaken,” Thoreau says, shaking his head as he fills both of his pockets with apples deemed unworthwhile; he is the noble predecessor to the anarchists I knew in college who proudly rescued dented but perfectly fine cans from the dumpsters behind Whole Foods.
But it’s not merely thrift that thrills Thoreau—it’s an inversion of taste. Like a rebellious teenager, whatever the farmer finds least desirable is most delicious to him. He even sets himself apart from those who stoop to pay for apples at markets, which points to the enlightened nature of apple picking. But his delight in subversive theft hinges upon one rule: his bounty must be consumed al fresco to be truly appreciated: “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.”
With all of my haughty trappings, I never thought to eat an apple outside at the orchard. My restraint was probably because these apples needed their rotten spots cut off first, but I also think that the actual acquisition of the fruit most occupied me. I got busy for a few days after we picked at Evergreen Lane, so the apples were left untouched in a corner of the kitchen floor in two beat-up reusable shopping bags. When I finally got to it, I ran them under hot water and lobbed off the soft dark spots, congratulating myself for picking them at all—some of their rot was as wide as half of the fruit. Then, I layered slices on baking sheets, sprinkled them with a bit of apple cider vinegar, and smothered them with oats mixed with flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon. We had two big pans stacked in our fridge for a week and ate it atop scoops of unsweetened whole milk yogurt. The flavor was more exquisite than any pie I can recall having, biting sweetness never cloying, baked skin soft under my teeth. At his highchair with a spoon in his fist and wide eyes, the apple bake blew Gabe’s mind, too.
Since Thoreau never had children, I wonder what he would think of the modern apple picking tradition that often focused on children. I imagined him smiling down on my reverence for organic rot: “Almost all wild apples are handsome. They cannot be too gnarly and crabbed and rusty to look at…” But then again, he would have disapproved of my waste: after a few days, a couple of my picked apples that didn’t make it into the cobbler did turn black in the countertop bowl. But the apples had probably lost their luster, their contact with the outdoors. The spell had been broken.
Thoreau had no barrels or scales, nor a camera for seasonally appropriate photo shoots. “Let the most beautiful or the swiftest have it. That should be the “going” price of apples,” he said. And while his experience with apples was so different from my own, I related to his romance with apples—and also his sadness. “The era of the Wild Apple will soon be past,” he said. “It is a fruit which will probably become extinct in New England.” I wondered if the same would happen with organic orchards. In the meantime, I decided to follow Thoreau’s lead, seeing apple picking as both a utility and something to become immersed in.
In the fall of ‘21, COVID kept pushing our visit to Evergreen Lane back. So, to get our fix, we went to the farmer’s market on Fulton Street. It was right before closing time, so I took Gabe’s hand and we ran down the long corridor of vendors. The only organic apples for sale were at the very last booth, so Gabe was confused, pulling on my hand as we hauled past conventional apples of many different colors and sizes. At last, we reached the end of the line, where a young woman told us about two available varieties. I splurged on a barrel of each, quizzing her on the location of the orchard. When could we come out? I asked. And then we walked away, into the abandoned market, ever so lucky to sip organic chilled cider from little plastic cups.
photo credits: Sixteen Miles Out Photgraphy, Unsplash