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.
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.
Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, And every fleck of russet showing clear. My instep arch not only keeps the ache, It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. And I keep hearing from the cellar bin The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in.
Frost wrote ``After Apple-Picking,'' according to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant in her book ``Robert Frost: Trials by Existence,'' as a landmark of ``habitual attention and action to New England folks staring into dark abysses or shrewdly counting their blessings.'' She continues: ``All these Yankees had climbed their mountains to drink at the spring, had built their woodpiles and gone drowsy with their apple picking.''
Sometimes when I see Henry James out there, alone, or when I imagine him in his mobile home, alone, I wonder why he stays. His former life as a fisherman, the way he tells it, was not bad. But then I know. He is an ambitious man, and life in Jamaica, he said, hasn't the number or quality of opportunities for a man and his family that we have here. He is waiting for the day when, having spent enough time here - and having learned a skill few Americans want anymore, a skill like growing and picking apples - his wife and children will be allowed to come and live here. To him, this is the place to be; no matter how many hours it costs him, this is it.
So now he works. And if it is work that makes people what they are, and if apple growing and picking is the timeless labor and ritual of the Yankees, then Henry James is a kind of Yankee now, a pilgrim. And, to me, he is an inspiration; as I see him save toward a better life for himself and his family, he seems to bring the ideals of our nation close again to the early dream of an enlightened civilization of farmers.
This is what we like to remind ourselves, or to relive, when we spend an hour or two of a Saturday afternoon in the pick-your-own orchards. We like the feeling of a simple, wholesome accomplishment. And we like to take away not only apples, but, in quantities enough to fill some void in our lives, the assurance that the land is good and generous, as still there to go back to.
Like settlers before him, Henry James seemed governed by the internal reverence of hard work and some kind of ordered existence gathered around it. Elemental convictions that strengthen and become more hallowed in the drama of adversity and reward. His Jamaican accent is perhaps the new accent - perhaps one of many accents - of a new wave of pilgrims and Yankees who, by working the land here that most of us have left behind, are climbing their mountains to drink at that spring.
For I have had too much Of apple-picking; I am overtired Of the great harvest I myself desired. There were ten thousand fruit
to touch, Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. For all That struck the earth, No matter if not bruised or spiked with
stubble, Went surely to the cider-apple heap As of no worth.
In the evening these days, I walk through the orchard to see what Henry James and the others have combed through while I've been at my office. Each passing day there are fewer and fewer trees left with fruit. The trees that I picked are now bare; I visit them from time to time and feel something like mourning.
And under the trees picked clean, there in the thoughtful waning light, is an ocean of fallen apples, bound for the cider mill, just as Frost wrote. I can smell them all rotting, and I too dream, or almost dream, of something that is familiar, but that I had forgotten; I feel the land taking me back, feel my ladder sway as a bough bends.
It is quiet among the trees at dusk, and getting colder. The leaves on the maples and the birches are turning, and falling. In the wind that blows I can feel on my face, and hear in the soft clatter of dying leaves, winter's grip foreboding. And already I can see through my steamy kitchen window, in my mind's eye, Henry James out there again, alone in the snow, pruning back the bare branches, chopping the fallen ones with a machete. But in my mind it is not so strange a sight now as it once was; and I am even able to imagine him saying to himself, as the Pilgrim forebears in a bygone time who might have inspired Frost, ever apprehensive of the hardships of farm life and of the darkness that must fall:
One can see what will trouble This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, The woodchuck could say whether it's
like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, Or just some human sleep. ``After Apple-Picking'' is from ``The Poetry of Robert Frost'' edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1930, 1939, 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Copyright 1958 by Robert Frost. Copyright 1967 Lesley Frost Ballantine. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, Inc.