“You twist the stem of the apple,” the girl tells me in my second-grade classroom, “And as you do, you say the letters of the alphabet… A, B, C, D, E, F…” She demonstrates, holding the apple in her left hand, her right gripping the stem and deftly twisting it between her fingers. As she reaches “J”, the stem twists off. “The letter the stem comes off on is the first letter of the name of your husband.” I try it and end up with “L.” What name would that be? Leonard? Lawrence? Leopold? None of my fellow grade-two students had those names. I shrug and bite into the apple. It is crunchy and juicy and sweet.
I love apples. They are one of my staple fruits. Luckily, I live in a valley of orchards, so I can eat local apples year round – which I do, except perhaps for a few months in spring and summer when last year’s apples are gone and this year’s apples are not yet ripe. When apples are available, I eat one a day. I prefer to eat them whole, first twisting off the stem (although, since I no longer have any interest in hypothetical future husbands, I don’t bother to chant the alphabet as I do) and then eating the apple until only the core remains. The core, in turn, becomes part of our compost.
Apple trees have been cultivated for thousands of years. Although today we have stores full of exotic fruits available to us all year long, once – when everyone ate locally because they had no other options – apples would have been an important fall and winter food source. They could be easily stored or preserved, giving people some tasty fruits to snack on even in the depths of winter, when fresh food would have been hard to come by. They could also be used for cooking or baking, or made into cider. And the apple is a relatively hardy and easy-to-grow species. Plant an apple tree near your home, and you could be guaranteed of a food source for you and your family for many years to come. In some languages, the name for “apple” referred to fruits generally; for many people, apples were simply the fruit.
Given their importance, it is not surprising that apples widely appear in myth and folk traditions. Many people associate the apple with the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, but apples also often appear in Greek mythology and, in Arthurian legend, the name of the isle of Avalon means “isle of apples”. In England, the wassail ceremony blesses the apple trees to ensure a good harvest in the coming year. The Halloween custom of bobbing for apples also has its roots in folk practice. I haven’t encountered my second-grade classmate’s story elsewhere, but it resembles a practice from Ireland where a woman peels an apple into one long piece, which she throws over her shoulder. The shape the peel falls in will be her future husband’s initials.
Apples were first brought to North America in the seventeenth century. Although they’re not native here, apples often grow wild along roadsides. Sometimes I will see a gnarled tree standing alone in a field, marking where an orchard or farmhouse once stood, decades past. Memory encapsulated in the form of a tree, something like the fruits themselves, which carry the memory of last summer’s sunshine and rain into this winter’s snow and cold. Deer love the fruits and the leaves. In fall and winter, the gather under the apple trees in our yard, avidly searching out the fallen fruits and craning their necks upward to the apples that still hang on the branches. Birds also peck at the fruits during winter. In many parts of North America, ecologists describe the domestic apple as a “naturalized” species, a species that is able to reproduce on its own in the region it was introduced to.
But the apples that grow from seeds will not be the same variety as their parent trees. New cultivars – which may take years to develop – are grafted again and again, to fill orchards with what is, in a way, only one tree copied a thousand times over. Apple production today is both a science and a business, with thousands of different cultivars existing and millions of tons of apples harvested annually around the world. The apple that I eat today would not exist were it not for thousands of years of apple cultivation. It is an expression of both nature and culture, wild and human.
We may have shaped the apple tree, but in turn it has shaped us and our culture, in an interspecific relationship that has grown so tight, neither of us would exist as we are today without the other. I think that today it is easy to forget the extent to which human culture has been shaped by the non-human, thinking that it is we who shape it, and not the other way around. But most relationships go two ways… For thousands of years, the apple has been our companion*, food, fuel (as wood), symbol in our myths and stories. And it remains our companion today.
*Only in the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, and North America where apple trees can grow and have long been cultivated. In other regions of the world, other species would of course have taken the place of apples.
52 weeks of the year, 26 letters of the alphabet: “A is for Apple” is the first in a year-long series of posts using the 26 letters of the alphabet to feature plants, animals, insects, and other beings important in my life. Next post: B is for Balsamroot.