Apples

It is late September. The fruit has ripened early this year. Birds, in particular the jackdaws who live among the nearby chimney pots, are already pecking at the ripest, digging deep into flesh until they fall spoiled on the ground. So I am balanced up a stepladder, picking apples.

I have placed the steps close to the tree, so I am in amongst the branches. Leaves tickle my face and twigs stick into my ribs, but I am within reach of a good cluster of fruit. I reach my arm through a tangle of wood, find an apple, grasp it firmly, lift and twist. It comes away cleanly with a sharp click; a lovely, satisfying sound. Where several apples are growing closely, I try to pick them together so none drop; two I can manage in one hand, but a bigger cluster needs both. To get at the highest fruit I have to climb right to the top steps, balance carefully and reach to my full extent, maybe only catching the apple with my fingertips. I try not to let any fall, but of course some do, slipping through my fingers before I have hold; or, disturbed by my presence, breaking free to drop to the grass with a thud.

There are so many apples. After just two or three minutes up the ladder I have a full basket. I am amused to remember how each springtime I prune the trees with great care so as to maximize the crop; each harvest there are so many that I scarcely know what to do with them all. Some I carefully store, some go to neighbours. Quite a few, the smaller ones, I leave for the birds.

With the basket full and heavy, I go down the ladder, careful with myself and careful with the apples, it is such a shame to drop and bruise one. I tip the basketful gently into the storage box I have ready in the wheelbarrow. They roll in with a soft rumbling sound.

I shift the stepladder to a different spot and climb back up with the basket. Reaching into the middle of the tree, I notice the branches are crossing over, shoots all entangled. I should have pruned these back last winter.

Basketload by basketload, the apples come off the tree into the boxes: five big ones for each tree. After emptying each basket I glance back up to see where next to place the ladder, and so notice how I am denuding the trees, taking away all the blush that has graced them, the last colour of the season. I wonder if I am stealing, scrumping, we called it as small boys. But not so; for I put some much work into getting the trees into shape to give a good crop! The apples are not stolen but a gift, a bounty, both in the fruit and in the delight I have in the picking.

Harvesting apples, enjoying the sensuous click as they come off in my hand, appreciating the blush on those that have ripened in the full sun, I am also reflecting on the whole cycle of fruit trees. As I strip the trees of their autumn colour, in a way I am hastening on winter. As I reflect on last year’s pruning I am taken forward to next February. For after the frost—if there is a frost—I will be up here again, this time with secateurs and lopper, even a saw, since some of the branches are quite substantial. I will take out deadwood, trim overlapping branches and cut back this year’s growth by a couple feet to keep the tree compact and strong.

That work will leave me with a pile of cuttings on the ground and a tree that looks a bit shorn. I know I will worry that I have cut too much. But each year the little red dots on the branches expand, then burst forth into fruit and leaf buds. In April and May the blossom bursts forth and the insects get busy. By June the petals have fallen. Through the summer the fruit grows, the branches bend down under the increasing weight, until it is harvest time. Once again, I will pick the apples and cart the heavy storage boxes back down the lane, struggle up the garage stairs and stow them carefully so they last through the winter.

I love it that each stage of caring for the apple trees puts me back in touch with the whole spring/summer/autumn/winter cycle, not in the abstract, not as a cliché, but physically, in a felt experience.

Work finished for the day, I go back to the house, shoulders tired, a bit scratched, content with my work.