“It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.” – Henry David Thoreau, American Poet, Philosopher, & Critic, 1817-1862
There was a time when men judged each other based on the virtues apparent in their workmanship. A man who is patience, thoughtful, diligent, resourceful, and so forth, would produce work that exemplified those qualities. I’m not saying this does not still occur, but in most cases it occurs within the context of our jobs which is more of a closed system rather than a community system. The guys that we work out with or go to church with, most do not see the quality of our work nor do they even hear of the quality of our work, thus we are judged by differing means than in the past. While we do have some opportunities to work together, I believe we are often judged by the care of our bodies, our families, and our homes and property.
A Man and His Apples
How long do apples stay good? Think about the apples you bring home from the store. One week? Maybe two if they are really fresh? What if I told you an apple can stay good for up to a year if handled properly?
In his book A Reverence for Wood, author and illustrator Eric Sloane recounts the stories of America from her early days, tracing our history through the trees and woodworking techniques of old. In the book he tells the story of an old apple tree what was planted upon a hill. The branches hung low and as the tree grew older it would find itself tipped over, branches piercing the ground, and a new root system developing and eventually a new tree budding out of the ground. This happened over many generations and so, centuries later, people were still eating the fruit of that old apple tree.
Sloane also describes the meticulous care taken when picking and storing apples. Unlike today, with the many varieties of apple trees and the vast range of climate zones in which they are grown, apples were very much seasonal. Much like the seasonal nature of wild blackberries, apples had to be picked when they were ready and no more could be had until the next year. It’s hard to imagine just how special a time of year this was. Fresh fruit, which we can experience to some degree year round, was closer to a holiday in the minds of most.
Today, apples are grown in mass and are essentially shaken from the trees rather than hand-picked. Not so in the days of old; apple picking was an art. The pickers and handlers of apples would wear gloves through all stages of the process. The apples were carefully plucked from the tree, stem intact, and placed on a bed of straw. The apples were layered in straw either in barrels or in the back of a specially designed sled. Although it was summer, sleds, rather than wheeled carts, were often used to cross fields as they would glide over the rough terrain and not jostle the load. The apples were then sorted into barrels, once again using gloves and straw and the utmost care. The barrels were then taken to markets or stores where the customers would purchase them. It was said that the character of a man could be seen in how he handled the apples.
The apples were handled delicately by the family, treasured in a sense. In order to keep the apples fresh for as long as possible, each apple was tied to the rafters in the cellar by their stems. There they would hang for nearly a year, waiting to be picked once again, and eaten. You might ask, why weren’t the apples canned and stored in jars? Much of this took place long before the standard Mason jar and many families only had a finite amount of jars for such purposes.
We Take for Granted That Which Comes Easy
Human nature, being what it is, tends to prize the things which are rare and fought for. Our character is exposed in how we deal in such matters and we are judged by our peers on the handling of that which society deems as precious. Yet, when we are blessed by bounty we do not count it as a blessing, at least not for long. When apples — or money or entertainment or clothes or women — come easily, they may entreat our thankfulness for a time, but soon they are an afterthought, and eventually an expectation and a right. It is a shame that abundance so often leads to indulgence and waste.
All Work is Sacred
There are two points that I have taken from this story. One is that we are being royally screwed when it comes to fresh produce expectations. Our ancestors would have a fit at the state of our lettuce! The other is that men need work which is meaningful and contributes in a very direct way to their families and society. We need those precious things, the fragile things, the delicate and patient things to bring out the best in us. We need hammers and nails as well, and though there is a satisfying brutality to them, there is also a consideration of the work being done by hand.
For those of you who read the title and thought this was an article about testicle size, I am sorry to disappoint (though if you want to add some humor to the mix feel free to do so in the comments below.) Men, we are judged by our work, both at the office or in our businesses, but also the work in our families. How are we caring for our orchard at home? What does our fruit look like after it has been through our hands? Will it stand the test of time? Apples may be more plentiful, but our families have gotten smaller.
Let us tend to those rare things in our life, as men.