I feel a trickle of earwigs in the palm of my hand, then running down my arm. Under ordinary circumstances, it would be a revolting sensation. At home, on warm days when I open the mailbox down by the road, I search for these pests. I shake the mail before I go in the house, knowing they might be resting between the pages of junk mail. I know the sting of earwig pinchers and am appalled by their ugliness. How can you not be? They belong in a horror movie.
But these are not ordinary circumstances.
Today I’m picking apples at my son’s orchard in Mariposa, California. He and his wife Dana make cider, hard cider in four varieties. My wife and I have driven 2600 miles in early September to pick apples for two weeks.
“Earwigs,” David tells me the first day, “are actually a good thing in the orchard.”
A good thing in abundance. What’s odd is, when I detach a handful of small Kingston Black apples from a branch, and see the earwigs skitter from their stems, then feel them crossing the back of my hand, I don’t mind.
These changes. How to explain them?
Apple picking, or more accurately, apple pick-up, has been a constant in my life, a seasonal nuisance. When I was a kid, we had one prolific apple tree in the backyard that required attention. My brother and I would be handed a bucket and told to go pick up apples–smashed brown corpses of long dead guys, as well as buggy green and yellow fruit of interest to bees. The second home my wife and I owned came with not one, but four ancient apple trees, leftovers from 19th century orchard days on a piece of land that had become a subdivision in the 60’s. When the time came, the ground littered with apples no one wanted (not even the squirrels), I handed our son and his sister plastic shopping bags and sent them out to pick up apples. They hated the job. It wasn’t punishment. It was simply something that had to be done. But to them it was punishment–the posture, for one thing, bent low to get to the ground, and for another, the necessity of handling rot. When they moved out, happy to never again face that task, the job fell to me. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. How many plastic grocery bags could I fill? How many deformed and decomposing apples could I pick up at once? Why did I enjoy it?
I heard manual labor described recently as a form of meditation. On one hand, that strikes me as a load of yuppie crap. On the other hand, there’s this thing called the flow experience. You do a job, you know the job, you enter into it and shake hands with it, old friend.
When they were little, both our kids looked around them and said what they wanted to be when they grew up. Our daughter was fascinated by grocery store cashiers, the sound of the cash register and the exchange of money. She said when she grew up she wanted to be “the person who pays.” Our son said he wanted to be “a hard worker.” Both his grandfathers drove pickup trucks, worked with tools, and could be called upon to fix stuff. As things turned out, both our kids got their wish.
“I’m a farmer now,” David says. The orchard is fifteen acres, 180 trees.
He has a tractor that doubles as a forklift, a high-powered, high-speed mower for cutting the grass between rows of trees. To maintain the trees he monitors an irrigation system. And a deep well. “Fifty gallons a minute,” he tells me. It’s hot in California. To the squirrels that live here, his irrigation system is a boon. On a daily basis they gnaw holes in the plastic lines and slake their thirst. On a daily basis, David is out in the orchard making repairs.
Four months ago we trimmed fire blight from branches, a field operation requiring surgically removing bits and pieces of tree branch and continuous disinfecting of hands, gloves, and tools after each excision.
In the barn are the cider works: a press, tanks for storing juice, a CO2 tank to express carbon dioxide into the tanks to control fermentation, a bottling mechanism, and a lot more. This stuff all needs looking after.
The work is constant. And it is hard.
The day we arrive, he and Dana are pressing. They start about 7:00 a.m. We pull in the driveway at 4:00 p.m. The work continues until after dark. “I’d guess,” David says, “that we juiced 7000 pounds of apples.” Lifted, lugged, dumped, pressed. My wife and I help. David points. Stand there, do this, hold that, wait a second, can you hand me that wrench? Watching, I am transported back to childhood, weekend afternoons and summer weekdays, helping my dad install a furnace or change the leaf springs on a truck. And he said, while he worked, Stand there, do this, hold that, wait a sec, can you hand me that wrench?
Then, if I listened, I learned something. And it’s that way now.
We came to pick apples, and pick we do. We ride the golf cart out into the orchard. Hitched to the cart is a trailer loaded with 12-16 empty lugs. A lug is a plastic basket you fill with apples, after you fill the bag loosely strapped to your torso. Dump the bag, fill the lug. Filled, a lug weighs 30-35 pounds.
I tell him I’d rather not climb a ladder.
“No problem,” he says. “We’ve got guys.”
He shows us: pick this apple, not that one. Firm, free of bug holes. Into your bag it goes. The bad ones drop to the ground. When the bag is full, into the lug they all go.
Soon after we start, my wife walks past me, her bag full. My head is up in the branches. “This is how it felt to be pregnant,” I hear her say as she dumps her bag. Lug–it’s the right word. Later, when the lugs are full, we’ll return to the barn in the golf cart, pulling the loaded trailer behind it, then transfer the lugs to the chiller, where they’ll be ready for the press.
We work mornings in the cool air, late afternoons and evenings, as the air cools.
The third night David hands me a garden rake, asks me to rake up all the drops between trees in the next three rows. Another job I do not like but find tolerable tonight, even pleasant, eliciting a state of mind, given the evening light and the quiet soft shade in the trees. The whole experience is border-line contemplative.
I want to be a good helper. I want my son to be proud of me, the same way I wanted my dad to be proud of me.
Then this happens.
The next morning at 7:00 a.m. David tells us to pick apples where I raked the night before. He’s sending us out into the orchard. He now trusts that we know what we’re doing. And we do. Down there is where we’re going, the Roxbury Russets, rows 20, 21, 22, where I raked. I know the way.
Down there, beneath the trees, the ground is perfectly clear, just like it was where I raked. And the apples are huge, and so abundant, so heavy, you can almost hear the trees groan. I can’t wait to get my hands on them. “Let’s hit it,” I say to my wife.
We pick like maniacs, filling lugs with these large shiny beauties. We work most of the row, and I feel, well, exultant. Then, a moment. Comes the dawn. Is this right? Did I rake here? I look at the next row over, and then the next row over on the other side of that, noting piles of drops, leaves, and sticks, right where I raked them last night. We take the golf cart back to the barn, pulling the loaded wagon.
“Were these–?” I ask David when he comes outside.
“What did you pick?”
“These are Granny Smiths,” he says. “I wanted you to pick Roxbury Russets.” He snatches one up, takes a bite, and frowns. “Not ready. These apples were not ready to be picked.”
I look at my wife. She shakes her head. It’s the headshake that says, emphatically, unambiguously, Moron. Still chewing the green bite, which must be exceedingly sour, David tosses the Granny over the fence for the deer to eat.
I am a hard worker. Today a bad hard worker.
The feeling reminds me of a morning years ago, when my father had just bought a gas station so my brother and I could learn to work. There was a backroom with a hoist. He and a few hired guys did car repair work, some of it pretty complex. I stood by and watched, helped, and if I paid attention, I learned. That morning, I must have been twelve or thirteen, I was helping put new tires on a car. The vehicle was raised on the hoist about six inches off the ground. One of the hired guys changed the tire on the machine; my job was to roll it over and put it back on the car.
I was getting ready to put the air gun on the lug nuts to tighten them when my dad walked by and looked.
“Turn the nuts around,” he said. “They go on the other way around.” When I started to take them off, he added, “If you don’t know how to do something, ask.”
We get past the Granny Smith goof. It takes a while.
The next afternoon, when he and my wife drive into town, I stay in the orchard and pick. I fill twelve lugs with Roxbury Russets. It’s hard work. But good work–the feel in your hand when you grasp three ready and ripe, how they come loose from the tree–but it’s also hard.
I’ve seen hard work, done some myself. I’ll always remember Torino, a guy who worked for the poured wall company that gave me summer work the first three years I was married. He was a lifer, in his fifties. Watching him climb out of the hole that would become a basement, up the panels, hooking a leg over the top, hoisting all his weight, you felt pain and exhaustion. When Kristin, the daughter of my wife’s cousin, started work as an EMT, her uncle shook his head and, because of the lifting, called it “bull work.” My father slamming the ball joints on a car with a four-pound hammer–I will never forget the violence, the set of his jaw, and the determination that had its cost. Then again, to see Torino on the wall, finishing the concrete top with a flat shovel, you knew the pride he took in his work. And the expertise and professionalism that Kristin brings to her interaction with patients, good work. And my father, setting down the hammer, picking up the electronic device he needed to polarize an alternator–good work, absorbing to them.
When you think apples, you might think Robert Frost. “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree toward heaven still…” I think of John Steinbeck’s Elisa in his short story “The Chrysanthemums,” about a woman with planter’s hands. She describes the feeling to a peddler, “They’re with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm.”
There have been moments this week, I’ve had apple hands, have felt a boy’s and a man’s hands.
“You picked twelve lugs?” David says when he and his mom get home. “Not bad. All Roxys?”
All Roxys. We got it right.