Hey all, it’s been a minute. Throughout the last several months since I’ve made a post on here, I’ve been continuing to realize just how big of an impact these past 8 months of relative isolation have had. We have had habits form, we’ve normalized something which is, entirely, not normal. We communicate differently, interact (or not) differently. We have been immersed in a space that reinforces introspection and aloneness, for better and for worse. The brooding rancor which has long remained at a low simmer in our country found its boiling point and a spout at which to erupt.
I’m sorry for not having been more present on the blog and on the web. The rhythms of orchard and farm life with trees and sheep have been balm for the soul, and I am ever grateful for the immensity of the privilege to be surrounded by such calm in such turbulent times. There is a lot to report and I want to share some thoughts:
Last month there was an article published in the Boston Globe that flew on the bottom fold of the front page on Monday, October 19. It was a total trip seeing a story about wild apples get such decorated coverage amidst headlines which carried much more a sense of urgency and dread. I received loads of feedback from people who were happy to have a view into what I do. Even though the article was full of buzzwords (which to me, has the effect of making an article a “sensationalist” piece, rather than a frank and honest description of a person or thing. Everyone has to be a cowboy, e.g.), and small, forgivable errors, I know that folks saw this writeup as a view into the unseen world of wild apples, and what it looks like for a human to interact with that world, a welcome reprieve from election and COVID news. Take a peek at the article if you haven’t yet and would like to see how wild apples made the front page.
The earliest I have ever wrapped up the wild apple harvest was this year. The harvest this year came hard and fast. Ripeness, and subsequently, apples dropping to the Earth, seemed to happen at such a precipitous pace from late Summer through the month of October. A warm and dry period in late Summer, following a temperate Spring and early Summer caused both wild and cultivated apples in our region to size very well and develop high sugars. Some parts of the region were categorized as being in moderate to serious drought conditions, which is concerning. Luckily trees, the miraculous beings they are, did not seem too much worse for wear throughout this period, especially if they were growing in areas that have been constructing a healthy soil food web (like at Preservation Orchard and in the case of many of my favorite wild apple trees). The stars aligned for a total vintage harvest; that is, the ones we got to in time. Mother nature seemed to adopt the adage ‘fast times,’ as we received a prolonged spell of freezing temperatures here in New England earlier than we’ve recorded in some decades. Late September we saw temperatures dip in the the high 20s, shocking apples to bring up extra sugars and carbohydrates from the roots into the fruit, but also causing many apples to undergo cell hyperexpansion and begin to drop and rot prematurely. A second major freeze, punctuated with snow, occured in late October, causing much of the fruit which withstood the first knockdown to further accelerate their fall and decomposition. I have mostly closed the doors for harvest this year. All told, I was able to gather around 150 bushels of wild apples, and another 50 or so bushels of cultivated apples from abandoned or old, rehabbed orchard sites, several of which I have been working for several seasons to renovate.
SEEN AND UNSEEN
I’ve been meditating on the notion that wild apples are not lost, they are hidden. This was a line that I uttered which must have stuck with the reporter from the Boston Globe who followed me on a forage day. There were several times this year that that has really made sense to me, deep down. The most exciting part of my 2020 apple harvest has been finding new groves of wild apples. Here is an anecdote from my best find of the year:
I stumbled upon a new pippin forest which waxes and wanes in stem density (number of apple trees per acre) over a 71 acre plot on a southeast facing slope just north of Lake Whitingham in Vermont. I found it by chance. I pulled over at a coffeeshop on a busy road, because across the street there was a grand old wild apple tree growing out of a steep bank a couple meters above a culvert draining into a river. As I was harvesting the 6 bushels of fruit it had dropped on the ground, I was looking around the area to try and get a sense of the ecology of the place. What caught my eye was a tiny glimmer of tennis ball green shining through the sticks from the slope across the road. Upon further examination, there was at least two or three apple trees growing in a thicket in the middle of a wooded patch, that appeared to lead to a clearing about 150 yards opposite the roadway. I followed my sense and luckily it led me to a beautiful expanse of wild apples. At the time of day that I stumbled upon this area, I had to race daylight in order to harvest the remaining one or two boxes I hadn’t filled with fruit yet. A real shame to have to be in a rush when you find something like that. The next day, temperatures in that town reached 21 degrees. Rather than pick over frozen and thawed fruit, a worthwhile but timely errand, I have resolved to let the inhabitants of that place; the deer, bears, porcupines, grouse, turkey, woodcock, and others, clean up the rest of the fruit on the Earth and perpetuate the cycle of life that creates these wild apple ecosystems, and I will return again next year. Check out the slideshow below for a mini storyboard of this anecdote.
I also had the pleasure of publishing an essay through a new outlet this Fall. Jerk Store is a zine publication based in Melbourne, Australia. I was contacted to write a piece for publication in the 9th volume of the zine, which was released last week. It is a very unique publication: each edition is printed on thermal receipt paper, and contains both image and text from a very wide variety of contributors. I couldn’t be happier to collaborate with Jerk Store. I sent over an essay I’ve been working on for some time, which has to do with the naming of apples. I am sharing the essay in its entirety below, because I want it to be a focal point of my blog, and for it to be food for thought for my followers. However! I would urge you all to take a ride over to https://www.patreon.com/jerkstorezine and consider subscribing to this zine if you’d like to receive monthly editions of thought-provoking reading that will keep your life spicy. Enjoy the essay ‘On Apple Naming’, below:
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ON APPLE NAMING
a waxing by Gnarly Pippins
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I keep having, and subsequently questioning, the realization that all areas of human culture are enmeshed with the culture of apples. It is natural to attempt to interrogate that assessment, trust me. I have tried to reassure myself that it is simply a personal view, one that only I, and those who think like me, will agree with, since I have an uncommon love for apples. I am an apple orchardist and a fruit explorer who seeks out wild apples. Surely, I must be mistaken to believe everybody can see the relationship between apples and architecture, husbandry, geology, music, perfumery, engineering, and on and on with the endless list of all the other areas of human passion. Is it so? I cannot assume what you, who are reading this, may know or not know about apples, or how much you presently believe they have to do with the whole of human culture. However, I must try and tell you about these connections between the world of apples and the world at large.
In order to see what I mean, consider that the apple is not disembodied. It’s not simply the attractive fruit piled in neat stacks at the market. There is an important story which is only partially delivered when you present the fruit as being separate or preclusive of the deeper story. The apple is a fruit, which, botanically, necessarily asserts that it contains the seeds of a plant ! The seeds of that plant are the key, you see. It’s all a jumble inside these seeds. Unlike beans, or maple trees, you cannot faithfully reproduce the parent variety through propagating the seeds. The genetic expression of apples is classified as extremely heterozygous, meaning that any apple seed, if allowed to grow, produces a specimen totally unique from its parentage. Often, the seedling offspring are wildly different. They come in all different shapes and sizes, colors and flavors, smells and affects. Some produce loads of fruit, some are more modest in their offering. Many, nay; most, are good. Some of them are super, and some are miraculous. They’re not always good. Sometimes they are mediocre, sometimes they are so bad you cannot stand to eat a single one. But the important thing to know is that they’re all totally different.
There is no apple tree exactly like any one which has grown from seed, other than ones which have been cloned from an original seedling tree. If you toss the core of an apple out an automobile window and it lands in a ditch full of wet leaves, and the seed, enjoying the damp caress of that ditch full of wet leaves, decides to grow, you will have an apple tree which bears a fruit of a type no one has ever tasted before, growing on the side of the roadway. Mostly deer and porcupines and racoons and other four-leggers will enjoy this fruit, because it is not common for humans to walk along roadways, although it does happen. If a human does find the apple tree growing on the side of the roadway, and decides that the apple is good, then the human will clone that apple tree so they can enjoy the apples closer to their home, and have a greater quantity of the trees. They do this by grafting, which is the method of cloning used to propagate a specific variety of apple, since planting seeds doesn’t provide the desired variety but an altogether novel one. If the human decides to graft other trees to plant in an orchard, they must be able to distinguish between them. You see, in the whole of the time humans have related to the apple tree, which spans many thousands of years, we have documented tens of thousands of varieties. The routine for carrying an apple across the imaginary threshold which divides ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’ is simple: give an apple a name and make copies of it. As creatures of spoken and written language, it is only natural we ascribe a name to an apple which is expressive of the fruit. I mean, we wish to select a name which is expressive for an apple, but it is our individual interpretation molding how the fruit is expressed. Our background, culture, customs and beliefs will inform how an apple is named. This has been done tens of thousands of times by different groups of people who speak different languages, who have different agricultural traditions, who have different methods of distributing produce, who build houses out of different materials, who keep certain types of livestock, who have different courting rituals, who have different musical traditions, whose alcoholic beverages, which are, invariably, pridefully defended by their makers, who have different dog breeds, who value women in society differently, and on and on with our innumerable cultural variations which have immutable effects on our methods of deriving the names of apples. So, it bears some importance how we use words to refer to the different trees in the orchard.
For an apple tree, of either seedling or cultivated origin, there is one simple goal; the dispersal of seed. It doesn’t really matter to the tree whether a particular specimen is named and grafted and popularized among humans. Their cultivation and cataloguing are simply human theatrics. Should that contradict the hypothesis that human culture is enmeshed with the culture of apples? Or, conversely, does it reinforce the surprising admission that the culture of apples, in any capacity which the commoner may interpret it, is actually the product of a collective human culture, therefore proving them to be inextricable from one another? Theory is never useful without application. So, let us examine several different methods of naming apples, and some case studies belonging to each.
THE APPLE AS TRANSMUTATIVE SYMBOL
Sheepnose – An apple whose exact origin story is unclear; it is probably believed to have come from Connecticut, USA, before the year 1800, but there is the possibility that it was originally an English variety. What is certain is that Sheepnose is an oblong-conic apple, meaning it is rather tall and slender. When it is arranged lying down on its side, or hanging overhead in a tree, it resembles the long, tapering snout of a sheep. It has never, in its history of cultivation, except perhaps in its very early years or local promulgation, been thought of as a truly exemplary variety for any culinary purposes. From a flavor and utility perspective, it is good, at best. This apple was named and propagated because it occupies the phase where one thing suggests an air of, or develops into, an entirely different thing. The name also represents a departure from the naming and propagation of apples (and other plant varieties) being a ‘proper’ thing, for the educated. It breaks from accepted horticultural framework that it occupied in the old country. This is an apple named from peasant Yankee farming culture. Do you see the resemblance? What would your cultural backdrop have to be in order to think of a sheep’s nose when you see this apple, even without being forced to see the resemblance by comparing the two in one photograph?
There are loads of apples which serve as a vessel for the essence of some other piece of life after which they’re named: ‘Cathead’, ‘Oxheart’, ‘Crow’s Egg’, ‘Brown Snout,’ ‘Leathercoat,’ and on.
THE APPLE AS ADVERTISEMENT
Westfield Seek-No-Further – A remnant of the pre-industrial agriarian world reflected in apple names is the apple as advertisement. Today, there are few choices in what apples to eat compared to what there once was. Today we also enjoy myriad forms of entertainment to choose from. At one point in history in in certain places with a culture of growing apples, the inverse was true. There were not so many ways to stay entertained apart from farm tasks, worship, and whatever fun one could create with what was available. For those who were literate, reading through nursery catalogues when they were circulated would have not only been a means of sourcing new planting stock for the farm, but also a form of entertainment. During this time in the United States, there were thousands of different varieties of apple going to market, all gaining popularity as varieties. With such ubiquity and variation as apples had in those days, a variety which had a name that stood out, staking a claim at excellence and accolades, like Westfield Seek-no-Further, would have a better chance of being bought and planted. There are tons of braggart apples sporting fancy names. ‘Hubbardston Nonesuch,’ ‘Medaille d’Or’ (‘Gold Medal’), ‘Jewett’s Fine Red,’ ‘Porter’s Perfection.’ The apple must advertise itself in order to manifest as a successful market variety both in nursery and at market. Imagine choosing between three apples: ‘Rock,’ ‘Cornfield,’ or ‘Laxton’s Superb.’ Which are you most likely to buy?
THE APPLE AS MEMORIALISM
Nickajack – Despite the fact that memorialism, be it of person, people, or place, is the most common method for the derivation of an apple’s name, Nickajack is a rare apple in many regards. This apple is said to have originated among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians near Nickajack Creek in present-day Macon County, North Carolina, USA. The untold and unprecedented violence that Native Americans were subjected to included the destruction of their agricultural systems and traditional foodways. Varieties originating among First Nations peoples between the 17th and 19th centuries are generally known by anglicized names or names used in commercial trade rather than the original names. ‘Nickajack’ itself is a corrupted word, but refers to several small flowing creeks, and a region of rugged foothills in the Appalachian Mountains. This apple’s name memorializes the land on which the original tree was found. Strangely, Nickajack is one of a small handful of apples which is known to produce offspring resembling its parent faithfully (with enough similarity that it is worth noting). This characteristic led to the apple being known by dozens of different synonyms throughout the years. Miraculously, despite many of its seedlings being named and distributed using other names, this variety has been generally accepted under its original name. Often, apples which memorialize people in their name reflect the owner of the property where the original tree was found. Hauer Pippin, Keener’s Seedling, Carter’s Blue, and so on. It is worth taking account that there are not many apples named for the Native American tribes on whose land the original trees were found.
THE APPLE AS LITERALISM
Rock – There are many apples whose names, being totally bereft of creativity, serve as a literal exchange of information. An apple’s name sometimes needs not be anything more than an accurate, curt descriptor. ‘Rock’ is a good example. Literalism, as I’m calling it, is a very common, and no doubt, a useful method of naming apples; there are at least 6 varieties originating in North America for which ‘Rock’ is the name. It is likely you know exactly what ‘Rock’ tastes like, or at least what you’d be led to believe it tastes like based on its name. One of these ‘Rock’ apples, the one which originated in New Hampshire, USA around 1869, is described as being ‘too hard to be ground for cider, or masticate even by good teeth in the Fall and Winter, but juicy and good in May and June following.’ In New Hampshire this apple would be harvested in late September, meaning that the apple need only sit around the root cellar for 8 or 9 months after harvest in order to soften enough to eat. So, the name checks out, and is a right choice for someone interested in apples with a natural ability to keep. I also like ‘Rock’ as an example because the monosyllabic name, also being quite onomatopoeic, is the epitome of simplicity. Not all apple as literalism names are as effective as the simple and elegant ‘Rock.’ Some are actually rather pointless. ‘Cornfield,’ as one example, which is the name of at least two distinct varieties, fails to deliver any useful information. Apple names which are ascribed using literalism often compound names. A common compound is the color of the apple when ripe in conjunction with the month or season when it is ripe, or the primary flavor. ‘Red June,’ ‘Late Orange,’ ‘Green Sweet,’ and so on.
THE APPLE AS DIALECTICAL ODDITY
Ralls Janet – Apples also have the capability of being a time capsule for linguistic development of any given language. Dialectical oddity is not a strategy for selecting a name, but rather a strategy for understanding the culture of apples through time. Because English is my language, I will draw on Ralls Janet as an example. The name ‘Ralls Janet’ memorializes Caleb Ralls, a nurseryman from Virginia on whose farm the original Ralls Janet tree was found. However, the possessive prefix of the name is not the interesting part. The suffix ‘Janet’ is a variation of jenetting, which is also stylized genetting, geniton, genet, and by several other spellings. It is essentially synonymous with the suffix ‘pippin’ or ‘seedling,’ meaning that the original tree had grown from seed rather than being grafted. ‘Janet’ is supposedly a corruption of the first syllable of the word ‘genetic,’ which is of particular relevance when discussing and dealing with seedling apple trees. This suffix and its variations reflect the dialect, accent, and word choice of a place and time in relation to apple trees present. There is a theory that Ralls Janet, curiously, was originally brought to America from France by Edmond Genet, French minister to the USA when Jefferson was President, which provides another possible origin for the suffix Genet. However, there are numerous apple varieties from the USA which feature the same suffix bearing no relation whatsoever to the Frenchman Genet. Fall Jenetting and Missouri Yellow Genett are two. There are lots of examples of these dialectical oddities if you travel around the globe and examine the apple cultures in each place. Take the beefings as another example. Around Norfolk, England, ‘biffins,’ a once-common snack consisting of a dehydrated whole apple, dipped in sugar and cream, was typically only made from the Norfolk Beefing apple or other local varieties with the same suffix. Only in these apple varieties are those dialectical oddities preserved, as there is not a trace remaining in the way people talk and think.
THE APPLE AS UNREFINED HUMOR
Slack Ma Girdle – I must remind you that apples are not always a sophisticated and elegant means of preserving human cultures through linking us to the plant kingdom. Sometimes apples are a crude joke or lewd double-entendre. The apple Slack Ma Girdle, an old variety of cider apple widely grown in southwest England, is most likely to have been named for the effect the fruit has on the digestive system. Imagine if ‘Loosen My Belt’ is the name that sprung to mind when trying to select a name for a promising cider variety. What were these guys thinking? How much cider had they enjoyed? Over time, apples often shed the original names given to them in favor of a more marketable or approachable name if they gain popularity. Perhaps Slack Ma Girdle affirms that a tasteless joke and a belly laugh is a good method for choosing a name for an apple, especially if it gets people to gather around together with a pint of cider. England seems to be full of apples named with this strategy in mind. ‘Yellow Willy,’ ‘Butt’ pear, and so on.
THE PRESENT AND FUTURE OF APPLE NAMING
So much of what we have examined about the names of apples come from apples which were named long ago. These old names and methods of naming are culturally relevant to varying degrees. They are the product of a time period which we are no longer existing in. The world is more complicated now; we are more complicated now. We have more to offer individually and we have less to offer altogether as one. There are so many fruit explorers doing the hard work of discovering and cataloguing novel varieties of apples, each employing different methods of naming, reinvented in our modern lexical terms and with a sense of what the apple means to us in this moment.
No Chenango – Exploiting Yankees’ natural love of puns and word play, this harsh tasting cider variety is named for representing the total opposite of an old flowery heirloom, the Chenango Strawberry, a more gentle tasting summer eating apple. We love alliterative names, we love spitters (harsh apples you’re more like to spit out than eat). Introduced by Angus and Abby Deighan of Rocky Ground Cider from Newburgh, Maine, USA
Scarborough Strawbana – A classic compound apple name, providing a locational prefix memorializing township of origin, and a suffix delivering tasting notes of strawberry & banana. Simple, effective and appetizing! Introduced by Sean Turley, known by his peers as The Righteous Russet.
Walter’s Favorite – A less common version of apple as advertisement serving to endorse the fruit’s quality without such boastful verbiage as the archaic ones. This variety was named upon discovery by two friends out exploring for wild apples when the one named Walter exclaimed it was his favorite of the day.
Tire Fire – This oft-used synonym for the variety R.H. Price, while being humorous, may actually be more literal than figurative. This name comes from the smoky and astringent flavor which is reminiscent of grossly oversteeped Lapsang Souchong black tea. The common tasting note is that it tastes like a tire fire. Introduced by Laura Sieger and Justin Glover of the Maine Heritage Orchard and Bent Bough Cider. I hope after reading this I have brought you closer to this realization that we, and apples, are not so different. In fact, we are enmeshed. What we have created in apples is a beautiful thing we have created out of ourselves.
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EXAMINING HISTORY + BUILDING THE FUTURE
Even within the microcosm of apple naming, there is a lot of history to consider. There are critiques we ought to be making. As it occurs to me, everything, even apple naming, must be viewed within the context of the time it is a product of, because it makes a difference how things which are designed to last a long time will endure the changes that occur with the passage of time. Everything has a political impact because we are all people, constantly and inextricably dependent on one another; constantly impacting one another. It is political. Culture is political. Agri-culture is political. Picking apples is political. Pressing cider is political. Drinking cider is political. It matters. Now seems a good time to remind you all reading this that we need to exercise a close supervision of ourselves in this time. Use an uncommon level of judgment to make wise choices. Examine and continually interrogate the choices that you, your relatives and friends, your mentors and idols, your elders and ancestors, have collectively made in the past. We have to learn from the mistakes we have made personally, and look at how that relates to the choices that are made collectively. We have to be held accountable for our own shortcomings and take responsibility to make ourselves into people who don’t resist personal change and growth. We need to continue demanding a constant and accelerative betterment of those around us, so that our future doesn’t become reflective of our past.
I am writing these words more as mantra than sermon. I am writing this because I need to write them to actualize them in myself. I am also writing these so they may inspire you and cause you to realize that the work is only beginning, just as I am trying to awaken that realization in myself. There are millions of other people just like you and I who are depending on you and I to be saying this. The future you want to live in is something to be built, it doesn’t exist yet. I am trying to be better and I want you to try with me. Keep cruising, folks. Love you all. Thanks for reading. Check the webstore for new items, and as always, stay tuned!
Matt // Gnarly Pips