Solace of Apples
‘Now just why,’ queried my father, wandering here and there about my room, ‘why this portrait of Voltaire?’
‘That is easy,’ I replied: ‘he loved apples and good literature.’
‘Enough! I am here for the same reason,’ glancing at his photograph on the table; ‘but where then are John Adams and Francis Parkman and Robert Browning?’
‘Coming, since you miss them, Apple of my Eye.’ My voice trailed after him as he moved out on the upper porch and picked a Northern Spy from the more than century-old apple tree planted by Johnny Appleseed. He returned, peeling his apple cleverly from bud to stem, and handed me back the peel. Without a word I twirled it three times around my head, dropped it on the floor, and we both bent over to read. ‘Russet!’ said he. ‘Rambo!’ said I,— to which duet we munched the apple.
Yet I know families in which the apple plays no magic part, recalls no glamorous childhood, stirs no epicurean palate, visualizes no fruity books, moves no remembering heart. I disagree with the second of the two sets of people in the world — those who think the world is divided into two classes and those who don’t; for to me the world is made up of apple-lovers and antiapple-lovers. There is no middle ground. Says the piece of sophistication in South Wind, ‘American women eat too many apples. Sour potatoes I call them: makes them flat as boards. Apples ruin the figure, perhaps sour the character.’
That was his way. All I have to offer is my way of thinking about apples: the sound of them, the scent of them, the look of them, the feel of them, the taste of them — the five senses sensed; also another, that of perception of distance. All children get the distance between themselves and a visible apple, especially, in Yeats’s parlance, ‘that apple on the bough most out of reach.’ We youngsters had a core-tree at which we nibbled like giraffes, not bothering to sever the apple from the parent stem, but clambering up, each child to its individual apple. Cores were as scores in less arboreal stunts. We anticipated John Farrar who pitched his tent
All apple trees within;
And if the apple did n’t fall,
I should n’t hesitate at all,
I’d climb — and sin.
Non peccavi, though, since the core-tree was our special property, as much ours as the path and the little wicket at its end which Lord Baring formally gave his five-year-old son Maurice, and our only sin was decorative — brown cores against a blue sky, which possibly irked our parents, although delighting us. Lord Melbourne felt and outflanked distance by always taking two apples at table, laying one in his lap while he ate the other. When Queen Victoria asked if he meant to eat it, he thought not, but he liked the full power of doing so. Another wise one has summarized the test of the right size for an apple thus: ‘Can you put it in your pocket? can you bite it? will it lie clasped in the palm of your hand?’ Sense was not hand-sense, however, with the little Esquimau boy who declared that his first apple had too many fish-scales in it.
As for the sound of an apple, audit the bagsful rumbling into the old cellarbins, the crunch of a half-ripe apple between your strong young teeth, the strike of an apple on tin roof, rolling rhythmically, hesitating a moment at the eaves, and then a muffled thud on the lawn. ‘ Engaged! ‘ my brother and I used to shout from our beds; and to the one who called first, the best windfall was sacred property next morning. Unless some earlier roamer retrieved it first.
Imagine my wrath in recent years when a certain canny workman, going to or from a factory night-shift, used to climb and shake and, with a wicked little laugh at my helpless outcry from the window, gather up the apples that had played their coda on my outraged lawn. One such prowler passed from culprit to criminal by ferreting out a long pole hidden under a porch and working it at dawn exactly where I could, from my bed, watch it jiggling among the finest apples in the very top of the tree. Nor was he the Irishman against whose maraudings A. E.’s apples were better guarded by the ghost of a dog than by a real dog. Finally, apple-sound that resolves into music wafts from the very nomenclature: Stayman’s Winesap, Hubbardson Nonesuch, Wealthy, Delicious, Red Astrakhan, Maiden’s Blush, Rome Beauty, Gilliflower, Northern Spy, Blenheim Orange, Pippin, King Fallewater!
Wien Azrael holds to my nostrils (pardon Omar!) an apple from the Tree of Life, the subtle scent registers delight; but Montaigne ' had seen those who have run from the smell of an apple’; while Schiller required the odor of decaying apples for inspiration in writing. Dr. Johnson declared every’ orchard should have apples rotting on the ground under it. John Inglesant, searching his enemy in Rome during the plague, carried ‘a pomander of silver in the shape of an apple, stuffed with spices, which sent out a curious faint perfume through small holes’; while the ladies of Cranford cherished cloveapples as sachets. One such apple, solidly embedded with cloves, and half a century old, I used to handle with the respect an astronomer shows for a star. Shakespeare opined that there was small choice in rotten apples; but Robert Frost shamelessly prefers them Frost-bitten.
No less a person than a president of the United States told me that of two apples equally good he always took the red one; and to judge, he ate them both. I sometimes visualize the twinkle in the eyes of the judging committee of the local agricultural society who called upon Mr. Emerson cto examine the soil which grows such poor specimens of such fine varieties of apples’ as he had sent to the fair. Assuredly he was no judge of apple quality, which enhanced his intuition in choosing apples when Dayy passing his pleached orchard, offered kingdoms, stars and sky; and I resented her subsequent scorn. Pan did not scorn the little scrip which merely smelled of apples, offered by the boy Daphnis. Poets ever work with the simplest materials; and when Emerson threw over the wall an apple, a bootjack, a crown, or a volume of verse, they not only hit the mark but showed, as John Jay Chapman points out, exactly where the thrower stood.
My ancient kinsman Elyot proclaimed in his Castle of Health that ‘ rough-tasted apples are wholesome,’ so I infer that he too baited time and a book with an apple. His wonderful Holbein portrait hangs above Voltaire’s on my appleside wall, and I frequently salute them by tossing up an apple before them. They discriminated, as could not one of my friends who, entering unannounced and seeing a heaped-up plate of green-apple remnants, exclaimed in horror, ‘Have you eaten all those?’ (A negative method of judging many human enterprises.) When the apple is unblemished, I yield to none in neatness and thoroughness of consumption. Naught but the stem and the shucks of the seeds remain. Seedwise speaking, I pale before the idea of the countless orchards I have myself devoured. With an apple of medium size nothing compares to eating it out of hand, burying the teeth in its texture — native teeth.
One of my friends tells me a family (Appleton, by the way) tradition, about the Reverend Francis Parkman visiting in the house, and being observed before a long mirror, swearing repeatedly. His shocked hostess asked what he was doing. ‘I am trying to pronounce the name of my Redeemer without whistling!’ He had recently installed false teeth. One of my kin lately confided to me that he could never see what was funny about Dogberry’s ‘I have my losses,’ till, in one fell swoop, he lost his teeth. Then enlightenment. He too had something to talk about, losses to boast of, quite as if he had been through the war! The toothless and the artificially furnished may, of course, scrape their apples. I recall one day during a trifling ailment my mother bringing me half an apple with a short-bladed knife, and teaching me to scrape and eat. A half-hour’s thrill and medicine. After which the shell, to the neatly undermined core of which a meat-skewer mast and paper sail had been attached, accompanied me to the bathtub.
Although apples are autumnal, they are par excellence the fruit of childhood, as Karl Anderson shows in that exquisite painting of Youth in Autumn — the lad on horseback eyeing the apples in his mother’s straw hat, and on the bough behind her; and Robinson who
Calm and incorrigibly satisfied
With apples and romance and ignorance.
The lesson in apple-scraping antedated my fourth year, as I know by changes in the house that the apple-smashing episodes did. In these I was only an entranced on-looker: the boys it was who made the delectable, juice-charged bruises on their apples by throwing them hard against the dining-room ceiling, the softer apples sticking there and requiring the urgency of other apples, skillfully aimed, to bring them down. With the new ceiling that aid to mastication was taboo. About this period I discovered in the bound volumes of the Agriculturist full-size apple outlines which I humanized with pencil. All were furnished with teeth. An apple without teeth is unthinkable! though that it should be actively as well as passively toothsome was possibly an invention of my own.
The squirrels hoarding nuts in the hollows of our core-tree, — one butternut so started now towers far above its sponsors, — and the bluejays hammering kernels of corn into our flower-beds, were no more winter-provident than we. Some little natural hollows near a wildapple tree were used as a cache for the small bitter fruit, blanketed with leaves, to wait a February thaw when we should mine and eat the trove.
How many petty incidents like this arouse precious memories! You can always romance about the apple trees in your old orchard — trees you have climbed and under which you have ‘let the old cat die’; in the big crotches of which you read Munchausen, munching apples meanwhile; the low horizontal bough under which you led the old nag, bearing some guileless guest who needed ‘taking down’ and got it! What tales the apples that went to school with us could have told. They served to propitiate teacher, to bribe our mathematical betters, for recuperation at recess, for inspiration behind our geographies. In the essay on Christ Hospital, Lamb writes of his friend Le Grice, who was in the habit of eating apples in school, for which he was often rebuked. One day, having pleased the master, who was himself eating apples, the latter called out, ‘Le Grice, here is an apple for you.’ Le Grice, who felt his dignity hurt, replied tranquilly, ‘Sir, I never eat apples’; which enraptured the boys.
My apple-tree-shaded garden lies en route to a grade school, and my butcher Izzy’s large family got the habit of dropping in, on the four daily passages. One year of scarcity I protested, mildly inquiring if they had no apples at home. ‘Oh, yes, we have a bushel,’ returned one, ' but we are saving those.’
Our public library is located in a high, wooded park in the very heart of the city, with entrances at all corners. On summer days, when I pass through, I seldom fail to see children prone on the grass or the wide wall, sitting on the steps or the benches, engrossed in books; and more than once I have carried along a basket of apples to distribute there, to complete the young readers’ cup of enchantment. For in my childhood a book was a book and an apple an apple, but neither prize quite perfect without the other.
In one of my back-head convolutions, probably no bigger than a hazel-nut, I keep a museum of apple treasures. In the middle of it stands a wonderful tree with a little swing, in which from time to time sit Joan and Jermaine and Joselyn, while Martin Pippin shakes a hail of sweet apples about their heads.
This tree bears buds and blossoms and ripe apples, red and yellow and striped and freckled and water-core; and it never needs to be sprayed against scale or maggot, codlin, tussock, or mildew. And a ring of windfalls lies in the grass. One of the treasures of the museum is the rosy apple still bearing the slight dent where it hit Newton’s head, and caused the law of gravitation to sprout; and another holds aloft William Tell’s arrow.
Everything that mentions the apple or has been inspired by its decorative worth — woven fabrics, sculpture, paintings, carvings; such by-products as the crab-apple cane which Franklin bequeathed to Washington; and dumplings after the recipe of Charles Lamb — has place in my brain museum. Yes, even one of the ‘worlds’ of my childhood — a great Pound Sweeting, inked out with equator and arctic circles and rough shapes of continents, with cities marked by pins. I recall my mother soliloquizing over the inhabitants of one of these worlds, hung by a bit of string from its ancestral bough, thus: ‘All the atoms running round, paying their rent, ordering butter for over Sunday, and the thirty-two teeth of them all having to be filled!’
That swinging, spinning sphere of mine, my little world, endowed with the sights and smells and sounds and stories of appledom; its fables and folklore and fantasy; its gods and heroes and devotees; its poets and painters and philosophers; its history and its fiction; its romance and utility — of Thee I sing! Yet thou hangest only from mine own tree. From millions of other boughs hangs fruit as appetizing, as personal, as richly endowed, as memorable. Friend, to your own harvest! Review, rehandle, retaste, recall. I know of no more appetizing sport than to anthologize your Applealia!