The Beauty and Bounty of Migrant Life

This fall, at harvest time, I walked through an apple orchard slowly - remembering. For 16 years, as a migrant fruit picker, my life was firmly tied and bound with the harvest.

My husband and I had begun picking fruit for temporary employment, a kind of lark, when we were both in our early 20s, but we were soon hooked by the people we met, the way of life, and the orchard work itself. Cherries, plums, pears, and apples - we picked them all, working in orchards along the West Coast, from Stockton, Calif., to Wenatchee, Wash.; from Hood River, Ore., to Polson, Mont.

It's been nearly a decade since I picked apples for a living, but some things don't change. The news stories still talk of the same hardships of farm workers: the inadequate housing, the long hours, the pesticide exposure, the hard work, and the low wages. These were among the factors - along with the needs of our school-age child - that finally persuaded us to give up fruit picking. But the problems of farm work, the negative focus of virtually every report about the subject, are only one side of the story.

People are always surprised when I tell them that my fellow workers and I chose to pick fruit and valued it for all that it was, despite the problems that accompanied it. Our memories of the orchard and its work are more than nostalgia; they are another, equally valid part of the harvest experience, the other side of the story.

Sensations washed over me as I walked through the orchard in central Washington that September day and breathed in the clean, sweet scent of apples, and the layers of scents beneath: the rich aroma of ripe pears from the Bartlett orchard nearby, the faintly metallic odor of pesticides, the oddly pleasant smell of diesel exhaust from the tractor, the pungent crush of wild geranium beneath my feet.

The other side of the story is about these smells, about hearing the clang of the aluminum ladder as you swing it into the tree and climb up into the leaves and branches. It's about cupping the cool, slightly dusty fruit in the palm of your hand and gently raising it so it snaps off, leaving no trace of your thumb or finger under its fragile skin.

It's about feeling the rough texture of the canvas picking bag as it swells with fruit, heavy against you as you climb down the ladder, careful not to hit your bag against the metal steps. It's about hearing the creak and groan of the big wooden bin as you lean against it, unhooking the bag's rope straps to ease the apples in. And it's watching the apples spread out across the top of the bin, golden and rose, glowing in the morning light.

Fruit picking brought me face to face with nature, with physical sensations of the outside world, sensations that seem to be disappearing in our increasingly "virtual" workplaces. Never before or since have I been so connected to my environment.

I observed birds' nests, often with eggs or baby birds, from my perch in the branches of a cherry tree in June and July. I picked dusky-blue Italian plums in the sweltering August heat with swarms of gnats about my face. I picked pears by an irrigation canal bordered with elderberry bushes and fire-red sumac in September, and warmed my hands around a cup of hot chocolate in October, as I rested during my break beneath an apple tree, surrounded by frosty orchard grasses.

WHEN I picked fruit, I rose before the sun and experienced the day, and all its elements. I learned to read the weather and its effects on the crops, to plan for the changing temperatures throughout the day, dressing in layers so I could adjust from morning chill to midday heat. I watched the sky anxiously, worried about wind, rain, and hail. Weather and geography were not abstract or inconsequential, but rather highly relevant - as they are for the growers - the primary determinants of my livelihood.

Yes, the work was hard, and the hours were long, and many days it was difficult to make decent wages, but often it was also deeply satisfying. I could see the results of my work: a tree picked clean, a bin or stack of boxes full, a row of trees completed. There is a kind of independence of mind that accompanies physical work, especially when workers are paid by the piece. It was up to me to fill that box of cherries or that bin of pears - and it was also up to me if I wanted to rest, work harder, or stop for the day.

But I didn't think only of my own needs; I was part of a crew. As we worked side by side in the orchard, my fellow workers joked, sang, complained, and called out encouragement. For we shared a work ethic: to complete the harvest. That task was significant, and we all knew it.

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