"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.