I’m not into eating apples. Mealy, mushy, sometimes a combination of the two. Or flavourless. Or way too sour—I’m looking at you Granny Smith.
But Helen Humphreys new book, The Ghost Orchard, makes me long for apples. She delves into the history of apples from their early introduction to North America to their woeful state now.
Apples must have a nostalgic connection to the past. What is it about a perfect apple that triggers an almost visceral flashback to climbing a tree and picking one; or wandering an orchard on a beautiful fall day; or inhaling their sun-warmed scent, even if we have never done any of those things? There’s something simple and wholesome about an apple plucked from the wild.
Humphrey used her research on apples for this book as a way to connect to a dear friend who was dying. And although she touches on this, and the ephemeral nature of an apple tree (like human life), I was left with a sense of mourning the apples we have lost.
“…in the nineteenth-century heyday of apples, there were upwards of seventeen thousand different varieties in North American orchards. Today there are fewer than a hundred varieties grown commercially, and often less than a dozen varieties for sale in our grocery stores. When we think of apples, we tend of think of Granny Smith, Gala, Red Delicious, Honeycrisps and perhaps something with a little more exoticism, like Ginger Gold or Orange Pippin.”
I haven’t even heard of those last two, and who even likes Red Delicious? There’s something sinister about the disappearance of so many varieties. Human tastes dictated what would be left behind today for commercial production, and as usual we made some bad choices. (Still you, Red Delicious. And you, Granny Smith).
“This is what the seventeen thousand different varieties of reduced to,” Humphrey’s writes.
“The number of apples in North America was once vast and practically unknowable. New varieties were discovered or invented all the time.” She shares a list of a mere handful of long lost apples in a list at the back of the book.
How about an Adam and Eve: a yellow apple from Ontario with red stripes that was often two apples fused together. Or a Batingme, about which a 1897 catalogue described as the largest apple ever seen.
“It’s a very small piece of a whole list that is lost to us now, and for which I mourn.”
I can understand her feelings, and the compulsion to go plant an orchard, like Robert Frost did.
Helen Humphreys was at Events 18 (Apples, Birds and Books) and 55 (Life Drawing) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.