Apple Harvest

Simone Barley-Greenfield 

It takes a bit of finesse to properly pick an apple. If you try to simply yank it off the tree, you will likely come away with a mess of leaves and branches, forcing the tree to expend energy healing itself rather than producing more apples the following season. Twisting the fruit about its stem allows you to pluck the apple without the extra foliage, but twisting for too long splits and frays the stem. A couple of rotations generally do the trick - a few more if the apple isn’t quite ripe.

My father taught me the art of apple picking before my hands were even big enough to grasp one. Most of the trees in our apple orchard on San Juan Island suffered from my inexpert haste before I learned the patience to wait for my dad to hoist me onto his shoulders so I didn’t have to jump for even the lowest hanging fruit. I couldn’t wait to get each apple in my hands. We grow numerous varieties, and each one has a special feel cupped between my palms. Liberty apples feel shiny and smooth, and every year I find at least one with a heart-shaped splash of green against the mostly ruby skin. The crimson tones of King apples glow against the surrounding leaves, their flesh often bumpy as it curves towards the base of the stem. A powdery sheen gives the maroon Spartans a chalky texture.

Every October, my family makes the journey from our house in Seattle to our San Juan cabin with the sole mission of harvesting all our apples. We rise early, promising ourselves that this year we will finally achieve efficiency. How long can it take to pick all the apples off a mere several dozen trees? Crates in hand, we set off down the hillside, ignoring the dew already seeping into our shoes. More often than not, we find a deer or two snacking on the trees inside the fence. I have no idea how they get through the wire strung between thick wooden posts, but they always do. Sensing our presence, the deer wander away, disdainfully casual. After making his annual promise to fix the deer fence, my dad sets his crates down and gets to work.

Inevitably, our goal of efficiency crumbles into the disorganization typical of any of my family’s outings. My mom gets distracted by a flock of goldfinches and sprints back to the cabin for her binoculars while my six-year-old brother abandons his duties in favor of the tire swing. I flit between trees like a hummingbird, only visiting my favorite ones. The best tree of all sits at the base of the orchard, a towering Jonagold. Standing beneath its dense foliage, I can only see tiny gaps of light shining through the mess of overlapping boughs. I approach the tree and examine the trunk. The familiar knots and scars in the bark greet me as I grasp the lowest branch and kick my leg up and over the side. I scrape my hands and snag my clothes as I climb, droplets of dew landing in my hair from the thousands of leaves above me.

Jonagolds produce incredible apples; one bite fills my mouth with sharp, sugary juice, and the fruit never fails to make a satisfying crunch. Slicing the apples reveals the palest of green flesh, a green I can taste in its fresh, slightly tart flavor. Jonagolds hold together beautifully in baking, and I always set some aside for my culinary endeavors. The self-proclaimed dessert-queen of my family, I celebrate our harvest with a sprinkling of sugar and a dash of cinnamon, and my family frequently goes back for seconds.

Those Jonagolds that do not go in my desserts join the rest of our apple crop in the crates. These fruits have a different fate. They will be washed, thrown into the mouth of our old wooden cider press, and ground into a frothy mush. We squeeze the liquid from this pulp, filling bottle after bottle with cloudy, golden juice. The cider tastes rich and thick, the tartness of the Jonagolds relieves the overwhelming sweetness of the Spartans and the Kings. We take our cider back to Seattle to enjoy throughout the year. Left to our own devices, my father, brother, and I would drink every drop before Christmas. Luckily, my mother rations our supply, forcing us to savor each jug. We never run out before the next season.

A few more hoists and I’m there: near the top of my Jonagold. I stop, breathing in the autumn air. Little room exists for my person amidst the clustered branches. I tuck myself against the trunk, the jagged edges of the apple leaves tickling me as I dangle my legs off my perch. I push an apple-laden branch aside and see my father’s faded jeans sticking out from beneath a tree further up the hill; he has already filled four crates with apples. He wears the same uniform whenever he tends to the orchard, the pale blue jeans accompanied by a sweatshirt printed with a guitar-playing blackbird. I see the cloud of his breath as he lugs yet another full crate to the entrance of the orchard, his face almost as red as the apples piled in his arms. He works tirelessly, whistling Beatles’ songs as he goes. He pauses only to remove a fuzzy dandelion shoot poking out from the mulch beneath a tree.

I shift my gaze to my mother as she reenters the orchard armed with her binos and Sibley Field Guide. She rustles through the pages, nodding in satisfaction as she confirms her original identification of goldfinches. My brother and I have both disappeared, so she turns her enthusiasm on my father, shoving the binoculars towards him, urging him to notice the changing plumage. Without breaking his rendition of “Eight Days A Week,” my dad accepts the binoculars.

“Hmmm, those look like pine siskins to me. “ My dad barley glances through the binoculars. “I think you might be losing your edge, honey.” He ducks as my mom takes a playful swing at him with her guidebook. She insists on confirming her identifications, but we all know she can name most local birds without hesitation. She cares for her birds as my father cares for his trees, and our property is smattered with feeders. Upon arriving at the cabin, she refills the thistle seed in each one and boils a fresh batch of sugar water for the hummingbird feeder on the deck. Her efforts pay off in hordes of junkos, grosbeaks, and finches. When a rare bird visits our property, my mom stands glued to the kitchen window for as long as her guest lingers. In what my family refers to as “The Ring-Necked Pheasant Incident of 1998,” my mother, lost in the iridescent green and coppery gold of the bird’s feathers, forgot the brownies she had baking. If the shrill call of the fire alarm hadn’t startled the pheasant, she may never have noticed the smoke seeping out of the oven. Normally bound to the schedule of a fulltime mother and lawyer, her shifts in attention were more rare than the birds themselves, and my brother and I teased her for her bird-brained mistakes. We didn’t understand the luxury of focusing undividedly on something fascinating or beautiful.

Back in my arboreal hideaway, I cannot see my brother, Evan, but the empty crate tossed aside in the tall grass indicates he has found more entertaining pursuits. No doubt he will reappear with his pockets full of treasures. Everything he uncovers has a story; the rusty nail found near the pond clearly came from an ancient fortress built by a ruthless warrior and his army. The only remnant of their society is the small shack on the far side of the pond. Evan has no idea that this structure is actually our well. He spins tales far more entertaining than reality, and the woods around the orchard provide a backdrop for any scene.

The thunk of yet another full crate pulls my focus back to my task. On the island, I frequently find myself secluded in a secret spot, thoughts wandering. I fade into my environment and observe. I shift my gaze from my family, each member absorbed in activity, and examine the branch above me, hanging low with green-and-red mottled fruit. I have climbed my Jonagold many times since it blossomed last May, watching the flowers turn from petal-less stems to small, bright green orbs. I remember holding perfectly still, hardly daring to breathe, as honey bees whirred past my head to land directly between the five papery petals of each blossom. Close enough to see their dusting of golden fuzz, I watched them crawl amongst the blooms. Their jointed antennae waggled back and forth combing through every clump of stamens -- the thread-like extensions at the center of the flower, each offering a portion of pollen at the tip.

I didn’t know much about pollen then; only that it made my dad sneeze. Many years as a biology student, and even more as an avid fan of The Magic School Bus, have taught me not only the critical role pollen plays in storing the genetic information of the plant from which it came, but also the strategies plants employ to ensure their pollen spreads to fertilize other flowers. As long as flowers are fertilized, the next generation of plants will follow. This fertilization prompts these apple blossoms to lose their petals and swell from those miniature green berries to the flushed Jonagolds I sit amongst, waiting to be picked.

Most pollen cannot spread on its own; it needs to hitch a ride from flower to flower, be it on the wind, the beak of a hummingbird, or the fuzz of a honeybee. In the case of fruit trees, and most of the flowering plants we eat, animals perform this critical step in the reproductive cycle. In return, plants reward bees and other pollinators, such as hummingbirds and other insects, with sugary nectar. The dietary staple of honeybees, nectar forms the liquid base of the honey the bees make to sustain their hives. This trade of goods and services between plants and bees benefits both organisms and ensures the continued of health of all populations. Like the cider sitting in our freezer in Seattle, the honey lasts until the next season, when the bees can venture out again to refill their larders.

I reach up and twist my first apple off the Jonagold. It pulls away from the tree with a soft snap. The leaves around me rustle as the branch springs back into place, and several insects take flight at the disturbance. I press the fruit to my nose and breathe in. I mostly smell the orchard around me: the damp mulch beneath every tree, the smoky air wafting down from our neighbor’s woodstove. Apples gives off a musty sweetness, only detectable up close, but it is the same sweetness I smell in the summer, when the sun has dried all the grass on the Island. This scent brings me back to lazy July afternoons, swinging in the hammock with my dad.

Thanks to the used bookstore in town, we owned every collection of The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. I would curl up against my dad’s shoulder while we shared the comics, our snorts of laughter drawing exasperated glares from my mother as she attempted to read “actual literature.” Her looks never fazed me. I read plenty; devouring anything that so much as mentioned dragons, fairies, or enchanted forests. However, my dad and I share an appreciation for irony, mischief, and defiance, and we indulged our sense of humor with talking tigers and crudely drawn cows. I could feel my dad chuckling along with me; we never had to ask to know we had both just read the same panel.

Lifting my face away from the apple, I call for my father to help me with the Jonagolds. Leaving his current crate of King apples to mark his progress, my dad snags several empty boxes on his way to my tree and our game begins. Expertly freeing each apple from its branch, I let them fall. They land in my father’s hands with a sharp clap; he doesn’t miss a single one. The soft thud as he transfers each fruit to the crate sets the rhythm of our harvest. Every so often, I lob a wild pitch his way, just to make sure he’s paying attention. He motions to chuck one back in my direction, but I know he would never actually risk upsetting my balance.

Rustle, clap, thud; I wind my way around the tree, combing through the boughs. Five brimming crates later, I find no more fruit hiding in the dense clusters of leaves. I descend my Jonagold branch-by-branch, still scanning for sneaky residual apples.

“Sure you got ‘em all?” My dad elbows me in the side after my feet touch the ground. “I think I see some red waaaay up near the top.”

“What do you think?” I reply, wishing I had a Calvin and Hobbes to swat at him.

He claps me on the back, and together we hoist the crates and heave them to the orchard gate. My brother materializes behind us, pockets bulging with new findings, and he gathers the apples that fall as we lug the overflowing boxes across the paddock. We pause to admire the neat stack. I can already taste the cider.