It’s been three years since I went apple picking in Hollis, NH with my friend A (not her real initial), and I haven’t picked any apples since then. The academic year is a busy time, and fall semester is my busy season, time for me to teach extra classes to replenish the savings I spent over an under-employed summer. Just as the agricultural year follows its own ebb and flow, so does the academic one: fall is harvest time for farmers and paper-grading time for professors. If you’re a farmer, professor, or friend of a farmer or professor, you quickly learn to beware the busy season.
While I was at the Providence Zen Center on Saturday, I took a quick stroll through their apple orchard. It’s been years since anyone’s tended the trees there, and nobody picks them come October. Instead, the apples are worm-eaten and grow increasingly wizened and frost-bitten as they hang and then drop in benign neglect.
A conscientious farmer would be saddened to see fruitful food going to waste, as Zen Master Soeng Hyang (aka Bobbie Rhodes) was when I ran into her after picking pictures, not apples, from these trees. Bobbie has been a nurse since 1969, the year I was born; she has more than a lifetime’s worth of lessons gleaned from her years as a hospice nurse tending souls facing their own bittersweet harvest. If you’ve spent a lifetime helping people at the end of theirs, you grow accustomed, I assume, to the sight of wasted promise. It’s never easy, I think, to see death, decay, and denied dreams. How many of the patients Bobbie has cared for over the years have felt too late the regret of their own neglected orchards?
In my three-years-ago post, I wrote of the weary, guilt-tinged sorrow voiced in “After Apple Picking,” one of my favorite Robert Frost poems. “Frost’s speaker describes apple picking as work, not leisure,” I noted, “and there’s more than a hint of guilt tinging his words as he describes the apples he’s failed to pick and bushels he’s failed to fill.” When Zen Master Soeng Hyang lamented the apples that are going to waste in the Providence Zen Center’s long-neglected orchard, she was echoing the sentiment of Frost’s speaker, as I was when I wrote about the poem three years ago. It’s a shame, I thought then, to leave things undone: surely if I or others were more in control of our lives, our schedules, or our days, we wouldn’t let a single apple, a single opportunity, or a single second go to waste. Given the abundance of nature and the seeming fecundity of time, we’d squeeze every drop of succulence from sweet-soaked days.
And yet… Can anything go to waste in a world where worms live, too? I’ve never seen deer nibbling apples from these human-neglected trees–perhaps the apples themselves are bitter, not sweet–but then again there aren’t years’ worth of apples piled beneath them. Some sentient creatures–not humans, for sure, but an invisible band of someones–are eating these apples, or perhaps they’re only contributing to the health of their parent trees through their own demise and decay. These apples aren’t, in a word, being wasted even if human hands aren’t picking, eating, or preserving them, savoring their sweetness in the form of pies, applesauce, or cider.
These days I’m considering the merit of letting an occasional apple drop. Worms are hungry, too, as are deer and other foragers; even microbes, mites, and other agents of decay deserve an occasional taste of tart. When you’re an overworked farmer or paper-plagued professor, you ultimately realize you can’t do everything. There are too many apples to pick, too many bushels to fill, too many papers to grade, and too many patients looking for patience. The secret to surviving an overloaded semester, I’m learning, is to give up on catching up. Once you realize there are more apples in the Universe than you have the hands and energy to pick, you concentrate all your attention on the apple in your hand.
Tonight, I have a half-dozen paper piles, all of them demanding attention, but the realist in me knows losing sleep over paper is the most wasteful choice of all. Instead of apple picking, these days I’m doing all I can to tend to classes, students, and my own fragile soul. What benefit are brimming bushels if you reach harvest’s end with a life that’s been wasted?