A New Yankee Works the Land
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree Toward heaven still, And there's a barrel that I didn't fill Beside it, and there maybe two or three Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.Skip to next paragraph
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FROM the meager orchard of Derry, New Hampshire, where it is said Robert Frost years ago picked the apples that inspired his poem ``After Apple-Picking,'' the rich romance of apple picking is alive today.
The enduring strength of this autumnal ritual is seen in the urban and suburban families who, each fall, drive to the pick-your-own orchards throughout the Northeast - from New Hampshire to where I live in the Hudson River Valley of New York. They fill a basket or two and to carry the good weight through the paths between the rows of fruited trees. The apples are no less expensive in these parts if you pick your own; it's just more satisfying to get them this way, and one is happy to pay for the pleasure.
But I am done with apple-picking now. Essence of winter sleep is on the night. The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I am not certain when I first saw Henry James, but my first memory of him was when I looked out my kitchen window into the late, winter orchard with its trees bare and spindly.
With a machete, he was chopping a large, windblown branch. He had learned to use the machete, he would later tell me, in his hometown in Jamaica. A man chopping wood using a machete might appear ordinary in Jamaica, but to see this hulk of a man from the tropics against a backdrop of melting snow, white pines, and apple trees startled me.
Henry James, whom I would soon come to know, is a large and handsome bearded man. He is full of friendship, yet quiet and reserved if not spoken to first. And after our first few brief conversations in passing, I did not imagine that he was to make me understand again the enduring special qualities of life in this country, and to open my eyes to the changing character of our rural, northeastern landscape.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight I got from looking through a pane of glass I skimmed this morning from the drinking
trough And held against the world of hoary grass.
Henry James these days is out in the orchard picking; he and hundreds of other Jamaican men who are allowed into the United States each fall to harvest apples. Many of them come to this area, to bring in the crop in one of the nation's most productive apple regions.
It is a bit of an oddity for us residents, and for the Jamaicans too, as they are instantly transported through the air - just shy of the speed of sound - from the heat of the tropics into the autumnal chill of upstate New York. But they're a welcome sight to the farmers whose trees are heavy with fruit and who cannot find laborers among our own people.
It melted, and I let it fall and break. But I was well Upon my way to sleep before it fell, And I could tell What form my dreaming was about
Picking apples is hard work and Henry James works hard. I have worked with him on a weekend or two, just to get a taste of what he does. There's good money to be made, but only if you work fast. For each 20-bushel bin he fills a picker earns $12. Henry James, on a clip, can fill a bin in just under an hour. Up he climbs into the fruit-ladened boughs, twisting apples in his hands to snap the stems - sometimes two or three apples at a time - and then he drops them gently into the galvanized steel and white canvas bag harnessed around his neck. When the bag is full, he climbs down and unhitches the canvas bottom into the big, wooden bin.
He moves through the trees as though against time, yet ever mindful not to drop or bruise the apples, for he has seen them through their infancy. Henry James lives here year-round now, and he has become somewhat of an expert on growing and picking apples. Tending to the trees, he had even spent his first cold days last winter out in the orchard, a solitary figure against the vast undulating hills of the barren orchard, pruning bare branches. Later, he explained to me his special kind of vision, to know at what angle the sum-mer sun will shine down upon the trees, and then to prune the branches so that the apples-yet-to-be will get their full share of ripening light.
When I ask him, he talks about an earlier period of his life, the time he had lived in Jamaica, where his wife and six children still make their home, and to whom he sends most of his paycheck. It was the life of a solitary fisherman. I like to hear his stories, and as he describes for me the cool, bright, early morning walks to the bay there, I am easily able mentally to transfer him to his white trawler chugging out into the glistening blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea.