“I think if I could subsist on you… I should never have an intemperate or ignoble thought, never he feverish or despondent… I should be cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived, and should shed warmths and contentment around.”
Unalloyed attention can make anything a mirror. Few things are more powerful than the apple as an magnifying mirror. The blossoms of the apple have been chosen by many generations of pollinators to bring color to Earth. Its fruit was the focus of the Bible story of first sin. This seeded thousands of years worth of metaphor and legend. According to folklore from my homeland, women are at their peak of beauty when they can be compared to apples. British America settled in British America. A land grant required that each settlers of the Northwestern Territory plant 50 apple and pear trees to show their support for the land. The apple gave the greatest metropolis of Western civilization its nickname, even though most native New Yorkers don’t know the origin story of “The Big Apple.”
Darwin saw the apple as a lens for natural selection. Beagle, he marveled at how this commonest fruit of his homeland seemed to “thrive to perfection” in the southernmost reaches of South America. Emerson saw it as the greatest chip in his philosophy. The patron saint for self-reliance was criticized for his sweetness, which, prior to the advent of refined sugar, manifested itself into an uncontrollable craving for apples. For Whitman, it was a microcosm of the medicine of nature that healed him after his paralytic stroke: He would sit for two hours each morning amid the apple-trees, “envelop’d in sound of bumble-bees and bird-music,” watching in the ripening fruit “the summer fully awakening.” For Emily Dickinson, the “hopeless hang” of the apples — the way they both symbolized and embodied the sweet unreachable — was her version of heaven.
There has never been a greater naturalist to write about the sensorial, spiritual, and emotional splendors that the apple offers than the great naturalist. John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) in one of the essays from his 1915 collection Sharp Eyes (public library | free ebook), which also gave us his lovely meditation on the art of noticing.
Our northern winters are full of sunshine, and the apple provides the perfect way to keep it all. It is the only way to winter without it. The mild acids in it make our lives sweeter!
The apple is the commonest and yet the most varied and beautiful of fruits… A rose when it blooms, the apple is a rose when it ripens. It delights every sense that it can be addressed: the touch, taste, smell and sight. And when it is still in October, it soothes the ears. [when]With a soft thump, the painted sphere descends towards the ground.
In a passage evocative of poet Diane Ackerman’s sensuous ode to the apricot, Burroughs composes a part prose poem and part love letter to the irresistible sensorium of the apple:
The touch is amazing! It is so lovely to touch, and I can feel the polished rondure in my hands as I walk over winter hills or through spring woods. I am your company, red-cheeked spitz or salmon-fleshed greening. Toy with you, press your face on mine, throw you into the air, and roll you onto the ground. See how you glow from the moss, dry leaves, and sticks. Your life is so vibrant! Your glow is like that of a bright red flower. It’s almost like you are moving! You are beautiful, I will delay the meal. It is so compact! And how beautifully tinted! Stain by the sun, and varnished to resist the rains. Independent vegetable existence capable of healing, bleeding and even wasting away.
Burroughs’s own grandfather was “one of those heroes of the stump” — the early settlers who traveled many miles on horseback for seeds and went to great lengths to protect their prized apple trees, fastening with iron bolts any storm-split trunk, even though these uncultivated pioneer trees gave only small and sour fruit. With a wink and his spirit, he treats the apple to moral virtue as an cultivar.
He is the best friend, most trusted and loved of all, Noble Common Fruit, his favorite fruit. He doesn’t plant his roots until yours are; you thrive best in places he loves, love the limelight and the pruning-knife. Your traits are indicative of hardy and cheerful industry as well as a long, healthy, open air life. Temperate, chaste fruit! We don’t mean sloth or luxury, neither indolence nor satiety and neither the Frigid Zones nor enervating heats. Fruit that is not cloying, fruits whose best sauce comes from the open air; winter fruit when the flame of life is brightest; always slightly hyperborean and leaning towards cold; active, bracing fruit.
Burroughs depicts the apple-eater in the same playful way that he paints him as a sort of beneficent addict.
True apple-eaters are as comfortable with an apple when it is in season, than with others who prefer to enjoy a pipe or cigar. If he doesn’t have anything else or feels bored, he will eat an apple. He will eat an apple as he waits to catch the train. Sometimes he will eat several. When he takes a walk he arms himself with apples… He dispenses with a knife. He likes his first taste. This is because he can see the flavor immediately underneath the skin.
However, the apple has many benefits beyond human lives. Long before the term existed, Burroughs celebrates it as a microcosm of biodiversity — a haven for “the never-failing crop of birds — robins, goldfinches, king-birds, cedar-birds, hair-birds, orioles, starlings — all nesting and breeding in its branches.” Leaning on his ardor for ornithology, he writes:
Ornithology can be studied in few places better than the orchard. It is home to many birds from the deep forest, including its regular inhabitants. The cuckoo comes for the tent-caterpillar, the jay for frozen apples, the ruffed grouse for buds, the crow foraging for birds’ eggs, the woodpecker and chickadees for their food, and the high-hole for ants. Even if it is only for the sight of the red-bird, there are other birds that visit the area, such as the jay, which seeks out the shelter its branches provide. Every now and again, the wood-thrush comes from the nearby tree and nests with its close relative, the robin. This is where the smaller hawks will find their prey. In spring, the northern warblers can be observed as they stop to eat the insects among the branches.
Burroughs has the naturalist’s talent for meeting nature on its own terms and finding beauty in its living realities, rather than appropriating them for poetic metaphor alone; when he does come to metaphor, it is a lovely and living one:
You or your like would be my only source of sustenance. I wouldn’t have any intemperate thoughts or foolish thoughts, nor should I ever become depressed or feverish. Your quality should make me happy and continent.
Complement with Burroughs on the faith of the “naturist” — his wondrous century-old manifesto for spirituality in the age of science — and his timeless wisdom on the mightiest consolation for human hardship, then revisit the little-known story of how New York City came to be known as The Big Apple.
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