It is as harmless as a dove, as beautiful as a rose, and as valuable as flocks and herds. It has been longer cultivated than any other, and so is more humanized…for when man migrates, he carries with him not only his birds, quadrupeds, insects, vegetables, and his very sword, but his orchard also.
—Henry David Thoreau (Wild Apples, 1862)
If I had to choose one food whose flavor fully encapsulates the glory of fall, it would have to be the wild apple. One can close her eyes, take a bite, and know what it is to taste an autumn-blue sky accented by golden rods, deep purple asters, the lush of green pasture, and the first red leaves on the sugar maples.
Bob and I make plans with our friend Bernie for our annual fall cider pressing. Once the date is set, our job is to meander through the feral orchards gifted to us by the earliest settlers on our respective farms, sample each tree’s offerings, and gather fruit. Our “pressing club” has one simple rule: No commercial apples. The best cider should capture the ethereal ambrosia surrounding an untainted orchard. That means foraging and mixing countless old varieties to balance sweet, tart and floral flavors, creating a glorious blend that honors our earliest agrarian predecessors, and nourishes us all winter long.
Trouble is, this year, there are hardly any apples to be found on our land. A late localized snowstorm that killed our blossoms and dampened our spirits at the start of the growing season haunts us yet again, thwarting our cider harvest. Bernie reports that he’ll have ample apples to meet his needs for pressing. But we can hardly scare up a bushel. Our trees may have borne no fruit, but Bob and I notice apples glittering, untouched, on trees throughout the community—in abandoned pastures, road sides, and forest edges. I should feel buoyed by the abundant potential harvest surrounding me, but I don’t. None of the apple trees sit on land owned by people I know. In order to access them, I will have to knock, uninvited, on the doors of strangers and request permission to gather the harvest.
I believe in the power of building community, of expanding resources and generating abundance by forging relationships. But believing something and practicing one’s beliefs are two entirely different matters. I hate knocking on the doors of strangers. Upstate New York is a pretty conservative area. The cars outside the homes I must approach bear yellow ribbon magnets and jingoistic slogans. In an effort to blend in, our car is unadorned. But upon opening the doors, reusable shopping bags, apple cores, and stainless steel water bottles spill out on the ground around our barefooted family, belying our best efforts to conform to the norm.
With empty boxes in my trunk, I muster my courage and pull into the driveway of the first home where I hope to glean fruit. I knock on the door. A woman opens it partway and peers around the side. Her storm door remains closed to me. Her eyebrows are furrowed, leading me to believe that she is both annoyed and frightened by my unexpected appearance. I tell her where I live, explain my situation, and the absolute worst thing that can happen, does:
She tells me no. Politely.
Scarlet-faced from humiliation, I scurry back to the car and confront the expectant gazes of my girls, who are eager to begin picking. I tell them the bad news and watch their faces fall. Saoirse and Ula do not define winter by Christmas, or by presents. When the first hints of the cold season hit, they practically rupture with excitement over the prospect of cider and popcorn by the fire. The idea of depriving them this simple delight outweighs my faltering courage. With confidence, I tell them that, within 24 hours, I will find enough apples for the cider pressing.
I bring them back home for lunch, leave Ula with Bob for her nap, then persuade Saoirse to join me on my mission. I brush her hair and wipe food off her cheeks, unabashedly taking advantage of her youthful cuteness. Any person who tells me “No” will have to say it to her adorable face. We drive to the next house on my list. We both get out, remembering this time to put some flip flops on our feet. We are successful. Tossing the flip flops in the back seat, we grab our boxes and run barefooted to the beckoning tree. I shake the branches while Saoirse ducks. Then, using our hands and toes to find the drops in the tall grasses, we quickly gather over two bushels of apples.
I sample one. It is scrumptious. With the taste of success now in my mouth, I abandon all reservations about asking for what I need. We ask everyone we meet if they know where we can find wild apples to harvest. The grandmother of one of Saoirse’s friends gets in touch with a downstate resident who owns a second home nearby. The next day, all four of us gather in her front yard and fill my car until we can barely shut the door. Another neighbor directs us to some bordering old pastures, long abandoned but bursting with fruit. My dad sends us up the road to a spot near where he’s been grazing sheep. Our goal for our cider pressing is six bushels of apples. By the end of the second day, the porch at the farm is piled with fourteen bushels. Then Bernie shows up. He’s picked enough for himself, and, concerned that our apple dearth would leave us without enough cider for our family, he has picked for us, too. It is our largest apple harvest ever.
The bounty doesn’t stop with the apples. Because word of our mission got out, our processing team of three expanded to nine. A second cider press appears on the scene, doubling our production speed, making it easy to ensure that everyone who contributed will have cider for their table. Tin cups are passed about as we share in the communion of our bounty, which is extra tasty this year—a perfect balance of sweet and tart, with delightful overtones of generosity and cooperation.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.
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