"There’s the joint,” John Bunker said, pointing to a neat line circling what looked like a long twig on an apple tree. The line, which marked the most recent year’s growth, would have been invisible to me. Once he pointed it out, the deep mulberry red of the scion wood, as the new growth is called, was indeed distinct from the increasingly dulled chestnut of the twig, branch, and trunk.
Faint as it was, to Bunker’s practiced eye the line might as well have been illuminated, and the new growth traffic-light red. His life’s mission, as he discovered it 30 years ago, is to find and rescue apple varieties from the backyard orchards that once were part of every New England farm. He is an apple whisperer, locating the lone strip of live bark on a hundred-year-old-tree, detecting the ruddy new growth that would elude others, and grafting the captured scion wood onto a healthy tree to bring what might be a wonderful old apple back to life.
Bunker tracks down not just very old trees but very old farmers who know the one tree in town bearing the prized local apple named for the town or the family that grew it. Two of his most helpful sources have been apple collectors named Earland Goodhue and Francis Fenton, who are each about to turn 92. People travel from remote wooded parts of Maine (which is to say most of it), the state where Bunker has lived for 40 years, to present him with orphan apples from trees on their property. Like found pets, the neglected trees seem to beg for adoption. Someone once planted and pruned them, and taught succeeding generations how to tend them. But then a link was broken, and the apple lost its name. Now visitors line up at country fairs to ask Bunker the name of their apple, and in the winter months boxes come in the mail bearing more mystery apples from all over the Northeast, for a total of 300 apple challenges a year.
People know Bunker as an apple man because he grafts and sells about 10,000 fruit trees a year—only full-sized trees, not the high-yielding dwarves that populate today’s “pedestrian orchards,” which are easy to prune and pick but fragile of health, shallow of root, and relatively short-lived. This is Bunker’s way of carrying on the largely abandoned heritage he found when he bought part of an old farm in the town of Palermo with two friends and moved onto it within a month of finishing college. He had spent his boyhood in Concord, Massachusetts, imagining a Thoreauvian future for himself (he lived a short hike from Walden Pond); when he went to summer camp on an island in Maine, he knew where that future would be.
His vocation arrived in a bushel basket, when he was managing a food cooperative in the town of Belfast. A man named Ira Proctor walked in one day to ask if the co-op would sell some of his apples on consignment. Bunker had never seen their like: apples the shape of a perfect McIntosh (a variety widely planted in Maine only after a calamitous freeze killed more than a million trees in 1934) but colored a lustrous dark cordovan, purple-black with firm, cream-colored flesh. The flavor was refreshing, smooth, and all apple—not cloying and mealy, as Macs can be, and not firm and juicy but as flavorful as cardboard, like Red Delicious. It was not a sour “quick spitter,” as Maine farmers call many apples, nor light-flavored with faint hints of pineapple and banana, like many of the heirlooms Bunker had encountered in his wanderings. This was a great apple, and a very beautiful one besides. The name was Black Oxford, Proctor told him, for the county where it grew: it originated in Paris, Maine, around 1790. Bunker took them all, and resolved to grow some for himself.
He knew he wouldn’t find Black Oxfords in any catalog. Apples do not “come true” from seed, so anyone who wants to taste a wild apple again must learn to graft it. The millions of seedlings that grew from the seeds colonists brought from England—varieties meant for hard cider, not for eating—gave rise to what Bunker calls the “greatest breeding experiment” in history. Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman, did not graft any of the apples he brought with him on his treks westward from New England, because his Swedenborgian Church viewed grafting exactly as many religions today view genetic engineering: only God could create an apple. (He sold them, as seedlings.) But farmers all over the United States did graft and name the apples they liked, sharing them with neighbors and friends and sometimes registering the names in order to sell them. By the end of the 19th century, Bunker says, nurseries offered hundreds of the more than 10,000 named American varieties, some of which became popular exports to Europe (which was doing intense pomology work of its own, particularly France).
A century later, the intense work was in discovering the origin of apples. Much of it was led by a horticulturist named Phil Forsline, based at the Agricultural Research Service in Geneva, New York. Forsline’s expeditions to Kazakhstan, where he followed up on the work of the legendary Russian plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, made headlines in the 1990s, when it seemed that he was hot on the trail of the garden of Eden. The history of this research, including Vavilov’s torture and death in a prison and the story of Aimak Djangaliev, the conflicted man who carried on his work, is elegantly described in Frank Browning’s 1998 Apples. Browning, a correspondent for NPR, grew up on a commercial family orchard in Kentucky; the book reflects his lifelong interest in the world’s apples, and includes much on Forsline’s work. Last year Bunker wrote and published an engaging account of his own searches, Not Far From the Tree, to benefit the Palermo Historical Society.
Like many amateur and professional American pomologists, Bunker followed Forsline’s research, and as he launched his own, he sometimes asked for scion wood from the Geneva lab, which is generous in supplying it. But his experiments in planting apples for himself and for friends didn’t go very well. The trouble, he realized, was that he was using trees “from away,” ordered from a big national supplier. The advent of the Black Oxford convinced him to abandon apples from anywhere outside his adopted state—and to abandon, too, any dreams he might have spun of following in Forsline’s adventurous footsteps. His Kazakhstan would be the universe of Palermo and the family farms abandoned all over the state. He might find apples as great as the Black Oxford. He would certainly find apples that knew how to grow in their own soil.