I keep an eye out for apple trees.
I look for them as we drive the back roads that we favor, avoiding highways. I scan the landscape of old pastures for evidence of ambitions past.
A sharp cluster of trees in an open field is often a living archaeological clue to past settlement. Homesteaders were quick to put apple trees around their houses when they first set down in a place. Planting roots, while planting their roots — both tree and human industry — an investment in the future with hope and expectation of bearing fruit over time’s horizon.
Generations later, the house and barns have disappeared, yet the apple trees remain, on good years bending branches heavy with fruit for settlers long passed into memory.
Apple trees are reminders of a mark of hope, a turning point in the habitation of a place.
When the afternoon light changes and the morning mist arrives as the last days of August turn to September, the suns of summer show themselves only when the marine layer burns off in the afternoon. There is a metal glint to the afternoon light — silver or golden knives slicing through the clouds.
The branches are heavy then, arching and aching with the weight of abundance. The hay is in the barn, school has started and we struggle to settle into our new and old routines.
Yet the afternoons are still warm enough for a walk, and red and green fruit calls from the tree.
Apple time is the time that I like best.
Betting on future harvests
We planted our first apple trees when we moved out to the farm in 1993 — mail-order trees from Stark Brothers picked out of a brightly colored catalog. One of the two trees still soldiers on despite decades of neglect. We call it the horse-apple tree because the small hard Gala apples it produced most years were used just as treats for our horses.
It has actually been doing much better the past season as I’ve become more ambitious at winter pruning and its blossoms help pollinate our better-eating varieties. Several years ago we purchased trees from the Raintree nursery in Morton, which allows you to choose the best varieties based on your growing region, harvest time and other factors with particular attention to use growing fruit on the wet side of the state.
Our star tree is the Chehalis with its fat, juicy, green apples — a variety discovered near Oakville in 1937, on the banks of the Chehalis River. A chance seedling likely from a forgotten farmer’s Golden Delicious, it has adapted its taste to be crisper and sweeter and thrives on the west side of the Cascades. With last year’s dry winter, this year our dwarf Liberty and Melrose trees are also doing wonderfully.
They remind us that we don’t have much, and yet we have more than we need.
Lately we have taken up making apple sauce and cider out of our many apples to preserve them since they are so abundant now that we could never eat them all fresh.
First we took our apples to the fairgrounds in Skamokawa to borrow a grinder and cider press available that day, and then last year we purchased our own. We have bottled hard cider, made apple sauce, and frozen the apple cider as well.
It is a tradition that goes to the heart of this fruit’s 8,500 year history of cultivation.
The apple originated in Kazakhstan and has ventured around the world. It became so widely distributed that in many early languages the word for apple is the general word for fruit. From what is still today an isolated corner of the world, the apple tree as migrated to the far reaches of the globe.
In the Americas the earliest apples were for cider. When the first apple trees were planted in Jamestown in 1607, their produce was too bitter for eating fresh. Instead, apple cider was the goal for each cutting planted. The cuttings did poorly, but in the seeds held a few genetic adaptations that found a foothold in the New World. Even if the apples weren’t good for eating, they were fine for cider.
In the growing nation, fermented cider was served instead of water — safer to drink given lack of water sanitation back in colonial days. Apple cider became a staple of the colonies.
As European settlements pushed west from the Eastern Seaboard, the apple tree was a tool for demonstrating the “improvements” necessary to establish a homestead claim on the frontier. John Chapman — also known as Johnny Appleseed — spent his life one step ahead of these settlements, growing apple tree starts in nurseries and selling them to homesteaders so they would plant their roots as they carved out new lives on the Northwest Frontier.
At the same time Chapman was growing and selling his trees in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, Washington’s first apple seeds were on their way by ship to the West Coast.
Washington state’s first apple tree came from seeds that sailed with the Hudson’s Bay Company to Fort Vancouver in 1826. Planting apple seeds is a gamble because the seeds may grow completely different apples than from the parent fruit. Four years later, records indicate a single apple harvested at the fort in 1830 — likely with great fanfare. Now close to two centuries old, this apple tree is still celebrated every fall in Clark county with a festival in early October.
Today half of all fresh apples consumed in the U.S. come from Washington state, and Washington apples are exported all over the world. More than 175,000 acres produce 125 million 40-pound boxes of apples each fall. Most are grown commercially on the dry slopes of the Cascades in Wenatchee and Yakima, where rich volcanic soil and abundant sun produce the sweet tasting fruit markets demand these days.
Fast and full
Owning apple trees can be overwhelming — they come on thick and branch-bending, and must be picked if they are to be preserved for winter. Like summer days, we scrambled to gather them up before the rain sets in and all trace of sun is forgotten.
A tree in full fruit is a gift of nature — of the rain and sun and soil — but moreover of countless human generations of migration and cultivation. When the homestead is gone, the tree might live on — a reminder of our past ambitions. As Michael Pollan’s seminal book “The Botany of Desire” posits — what we think of as natural when we look around the world of our backyard gardens is actually the providence of an eons-old dance between human and plant, investing in each other for mutual survival.
I think of all this when I see a cluster of trees in a back road field, of the future fruit still to be harvested from a forgotten past.