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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.