Apple picking is more enjoyable than you might expect for glorified farm labor. Especially when considering the conditions typical to October in Wisconsin: deep in the solemn orchard, clouds dense overhead with barely contained rain pellets, the wind crisper than any apple. I saw a scarecrow in a pumpkin patch slowly draw his grain-stuffed arms tight to his body as if to preserve what little warmth remained in his barren chest. It was not the kind of day one goes to frolic in an orchard – and yet, it was precisely that kind of day.
Apple trees – real apple trees, I mean, not those juiced up Hollywood apple trees – are ugly as shit. Trimmed and tuned to maximum fruit production, they look like a blind child was told to glue twigs to a fire hydrant in order to make “a tree.” This unfortunate state was especially prominent for the trees that had lost their leaves. Left bald, their sharp, spiky branches closely resembled clusters of claws. If we had gone apple-picking at midnight, I’m sure the jaundiced Halloween moon would have produced truly spectacular shadows, the trees grasping and clutching at each other in silhouette. The trees that still held fruit were little better off, although at least they could still claim to be productive members of the orchard. Sometimes the apples grew in odd groupings at the end of a low-hanging branch, like a heap of juicy warts. As I snapped off a particularly ripe member I remembered the old adage about picking low-hanging fruit and wondered if that had any basis in fact. Was I in fact snapping off a bite of cancer? Did the clustered abominations look so fleshy and delectable thanks largely to a higher dose of pesticides?
Concerns like these faded as soon as I took a bite. Apple-picking peaked in those moments – standing next to the tree from which the fruit was born while my incisors crunched into the pale red hide. It was very circle of life. I half expected a Serengeti sunrise to burst forth from the scorched Midwestern plain while the animal chorus hit the high notes. Maybe that Broadway spectacle would have happened if I had finished the apple, then pinched off a loaf on the tree’s root structure. I’m not sure my friends would have appreciated that, though, on an otherwise defecation-free afternoon.
Over the course of a two-hour hike through the great swath of crippled apple monstrosities, we managed to fill two bags with perfect fruit specimens. We also managed to chomp into a good two dozen apples, snapping them off the branch to take an exploratory bite. Like wine tasting, it seemed intelligent to test the product before purchasing it/picking a half dozen. It was also a real delight to take a hearty bite of apple, then heave the leftovers into the sky. You might think this wasteful, but the trees themselves seemed to be more than eager to abandon perfectly fine pieces of fruit before human hands could snatch them. The ground was littered with lost apples, fallen from low branches due to wind, rain, or an innate desire to see the world. These apples on the ground, fertilizer, ant food, potential applesauce, were an absolute delight to crush underfoot. Like stomping grapes into wine, smashing apples into pulp is a remarkably successful method of stress reduction. It’s also a good way to give your shoes a nice, rich coating of apple goop.
I could have spent the season out among those gnarled, twisted trees. Watching apples flourish, then decay seemed perfectly October, in line with the rest of the natural world in this month of deterioration. Plus, I would have had a sustainable food source to keep me alive and, if the saying holds true, away from the doctor. Behind the fruit itself, though, was the simple act of picking, an act that truly defined the afternoon. It’s in man’s core nature to grasp food from the Earth and devour it. Unlike at the grocery store or even the farmer’s market, here I was one with my neanderthal self, sniffing out the purest specimen, stealing it roughly from its mother boughs, and feasting on its wet flesh while the grey sky above me broke open and the cold fall rains washed away the remnants of my humanity.
Little wonder, I suppose, that they sent me home after finding me naked and writhing in a heap of freshly pulped apples, a broken moan of “cider” emanating from my wild grin.