Ripe and rotting

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.

Orchard shadow

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?

Ripening

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.

Unkempt

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.

Fallen in fall

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?

Fallen

Yesterday my friend A (not her real initial) and I met in Nashua to enjoy a glorious New Hampshire day. Instead of hunting for ghosts like Kathleen and I did back in September, yesterday A and I went shopping for outdoorsy clothing at L.L. Bean and then went apple picking at Lull Farm in Hollis, NH.

How about them apples?

Let me remind you that I am not a native New Englander: I’m a city girl from Columbus, OH. Although I’ve lived in New England for a dozen years, I’d never before yesterday gone apple picking. Yes, I’m sure there are apple orchards in Ohio; in theory, it’s probably possible to go picking apples at one. But in my Columbus neighborhood at least, apple picking was not the annual ritual it is for New England families. In Ohio, apples come from the grocery store, and apple picking is something done (for good or ill) by underpaid migrant farm workers. As a teenager growing up in Ohio, I would have responded to the thought of picking apples for fun the same way I would have responded to the thought of mowing someone else’s lawn for fun. Why spend your free time doing work?

If you are a farmer who relies upon a fruit yield for your livelihood, apple picking is work: serious work. But if you are a suburban, L.L. Bean-wearing New Englander who spends too much time inside eating food that sprouts from wrappers and cans, apple picking is a great excuse to take a walk. Whereas golf is a good walk ruined, apple picking’s just a good walk. When since Adam and Eve got kicked out of Paradise could two friends spend a leisurely hour or two strolling amongst fruit-laden trees, a surreptitiously nibbled apple taking the edge off mid-afternoon hunger?

Don't climb on the pumpkins

Before yesterday, my sole source of apple-picking knowledge was Robert Frost. Although everyone thinks of Frost as being a quintessential New Englander, he actually was born in San Francisco. Moving to New England as a boy after his father’s death, Frost relocated as an adult to England, where he lived with his wife on a farm in Buckinghamshire and mingled with the likes of Ezra Pound. A literary late-bloomer, Frost didn’t publish much of note until his 40s, and these early works (including North of Boston, the collection in which “After Apple Picking” appears) were written and published in “old” England. Thus the cherished New England landscape of Frost’s poems is actually a landscape of loss, a place associated with the death of his father and which he described from memory from afar.

After Apple Picking” is one of my favorite Frost poems. (Sometime I’ll talk about the oft-overlooked masturbation imagery in the seemingly innocuous “Birches,” but that’s a topic for another day.) Frost’s speaker describes apple picking as work, not leisure, 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:

    My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
    Toward heaven still,
    And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
    Beside it, and there may be two or three
    Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

Autumn abundance

Although he still has apples to pick and barrels to fill, Frost’s speaker is weary: he admits he’s “done with apple-picking now.” As autumn ripens more apples than the speaker can pick, autumn’s chill also skims his morning drinking trough with ice, a lens which makes his surroundings look far-off and strange. In the autumn of his life, his sight dimmed with both age and regret, Frost’s speaker finds his dreams filled with unpicked apples. No longer a tasty promise, these fruit are a reminder of work undone and youthful potential unreached: “For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” Looking ahead to a long-awaited sleep that comes after his labors, the speaker of the poem isn’t sure whether he is falling into mere physical slumber or the death that such sleep emulates. Either way, he realizes his dreams will be troubled with apples, reminders of the tasks he’s left undone and promises he’s left unfulfilled.

Pumpkins & squash

Who among us can’t relate to such somber sentiments: only the youngest and most optimistic? I know that yesterday I felt saddened to see the fallen apples that lay either whole or crushed under every tree we passed: although like Frost’s speaker I realize that even fallen fruit will end up crushed as cider, it seemed a tragic waste to see so much food cast-off and forgotten underfoot. The Lord, it seems, is a harsh task-master, for from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded. And yet Mother Nature seems much less demanding and even downright careless, encouraging apple mothers to breed by the bushel-full babies that will end up rotting on the ground.

Super squash

So are our bushels half full or half empty: shall we dream of apples picked and cherished or fruit fallen and failed? As I type these words, I’m mindful of the tasks still left undone: emails unanswered, essays unwritten, papers as yet ungraded. My nightstand is stacked with books half-read, my coffee table piled with untouched magazines, my desk scattered with unsorted receipts and bills.

And yet, this spring I finished my dissertation; this summer I found the clarity to take a step I’d long known was necessary but hadn’t previously had the courage to pursue: surely this counts for something, a larger-than-normal apple for the pail? I’d love to think that God himself grades on a curve, that God himself gives points for effort. I’d love to think that God’s scales weigh not only the heft of apples picked but the burden of fruit attempted, those oversized harvests we duly tackled but perhaps left undone.

King of the pumpkin pile

In my heart of hearts I truly believe that God is an smiling-faced giant whose open arms welcome bushels both big and small: whatever fruit you’ve found for fun or profit, now you can come home and rest. What you’ve gathered will be shared and treasured; what you’ve left ungleaned will feed the cider-press, a drink to make merry. Wherever you come from and whatever you wear, you’ll find a well-stocked larder at the end of your toiling, other pickers falling behind you to gather the fruit you’d seen but left as yet unplucked.