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Embracing Autumn in the Apple Orchard

Casey N. Cep goes apple picking and realizes the importance of putting winter out of mind.
(Photo: rkramer62/Flickr)

(Photo: rkramer62/Flickr)

The other day, I went apple picking with my family. My father told us a story that I’d never heard about how he used to pick apples for a dollar a day. There was an orchard on the other side of town, where he and his friend would hitch a ride when they skipped school. There were no boxes or baskets, he said, just fruit bags they wore across their chests. They released the draw strings at their waists a few times an hour to empty their apples into bins. He said the bags kept the apples from bruising, and I thought of pictures of my father holding each of his baby daughters against his chest, swaddled in blankets to protect us from bruises or anything else.

We were one of a few dozen families there at the orchard: Children were astir, while adults mostly stayed still, picking apples from single trees. It was one of those places where you park your car and fetch plastic bags for picking, paying as you leave for whatever you plucked. There were a dozen lots with trees and even more varieties, each marked by a different brush of paint on the trunk: Cortland, Fuji, Gala, Grannysmith, Golden Delicious, Greening, Jonagold, Lodi, Macintosh, Rome Beauty, Smokehouse, Stayman, Winsap, and York.

This was just one orchard of the 7,500 in the United States; its offerings are a small fraction of the 200 apple varieties grown in this country. Together, we would pick only two bushels, a small amount indeed compared to last year’s national harvest: 248.6 million bushels valued at more than $2.7 billion. But there we were, all together in the orchard for a few hours: admiring apple trees and picking their fruit.

THERE'S NOT SO MUCH difference between a pome and a poem, and at some point during the day, I thought of Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking.” The speaker of that poem is tired after a day of picking, but wonders about the tiredness of his body and soul, worrying that his fatigue might lead to something more than a nightly sleep.

I have reached that stage of my life where instead of wishing to grow older, I long for the people whom I love to grow younger instead. I linger too long on hugs and worry about last words; I say things like I love you a few times too many.

“I have had too much / Of apple-picking,” the speaker says, “I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” He sees blossoms, russets, and stems; he hears apples rumbling into baskets and bins. But all the activities of the working day give way to the scent of apples and the temptation of sleep; the autumn of the Earth feels suddenly like a human season, and the speaker worries that he has left the summer of his life.

That is, of course, why I thought of the poem that day in the orchard: not only because we were picking apples, but because there we siblings were so young and there our father was so old, speaking of his youth as if it were some faraway country he visited once but to which he can never return. It was not only the autumn of the apples, but his own autumn. When the speaker in “After Apple-Picking” says that “Essence of winter sleep is on the night,” I could not help but think about how my father feels.

I have reached that stage of my life where instead of wishing to grow older, I long for the people whom I love to grow younger instead. I linger too long on hugs and worry about last words; I say things like I love you a few times too many. Sometimes, it feels as though I make goodbyes last longer than visits themselves. The chill of autumn lingers long after the apple harvest, though I try to remind myself that worrying too much about the coming winter means forgetting to enjoy the fall. I thought of how Frost’s poem isn’t only somber and serious, but also strange and silly. Its erratic rhymes and tenses give way in the end to a curious moment where the speaker longs to ask a woodchuck about the difference between his sleep and the sleep of humans. I put the poem out of mind, and enjoyed the rest of the day in the orchard.

IGNORING THESE FEARS OF aging and instead embracing the task at hand, it turns out, can actually have positive effects on health. In a recent New York Times Magazine, Bruce Grierson profiled psychologist Ellen Langer, who has researched a version of that theory for most of her career. In one of her studies, Langer gave nursing-home residents houseplants, telling one group they were to care for the plants and determine their own schedules, and another group the staff would tend to the plants and they would have set schedules. A year and a half later, Grierson wrote, the group given more autonomy and responsibility had double the survival rates of the control group.

Age, Langer’s research suggests, might really be in the mind of the ager. In another one of her studies, she took eight men in their 70s on retreat, staging an environment which took them back in time: old music, old movies, no mirrors, nothing from the present day. At the end of just five days, according to the Times, they outperformed the control group in dexterity and even vision tests. By focusing not on the coming winter, but on enjoying the fresh autumn air, many of Langer’s subjects seemed to thrive.

A few days later I peeled a hundred or so of the fleshy fruits we’d picked and baked a half dozen apple crisps for the October meeting of the local Ruritan Club. Most of the men and women there at the meeting were well past the spring of their lives: They are living somewhere between summer and autumn, though perhaps a few are closer to winter. Yet they gather every month to talk about the needs of the community, to honor the work of other non-profits and service organizations in the area, and to plan their fundraisers and events. They don’t linger on the season, but continue with the harvest.