Picking, September 28, 2014

I spent the bulk of my childhood in Mobile, Alabama, so anything deliciously New England thrills me.  In Alabama you pick peaches and fish, in New England you pick apples and play paddle tennis. Philippa organized an apple picking trip and I instantly cleared my calendar to accommodate it. We took an early morning Sunday train up the Hudson River valley and landed in a small town marked only by a strip of old-timey stores. A cab took us to the orchard, but by the scenic route.

“The cops got this blocked off—I hate it when they do that,” said the driver. We ended up passing a bunch of beautiful lakes. “That’s where your drinking water comes from. No one’s allowed to touch it.”

“It’s beautiful!” I said. The perimeter of the lake was wide, and covered in trees already turning burnt orange, yellow and red. The fall leaves were another staple of my northern life that I didn’t experience in Alabama, where the trees never change and the heat is consistent.

Then we hit a long stretch of road backed up with traffic. Two rival orchards were right across the street from each other, bogging up the two lane roads with pickers.

“You’re going to the better of the two,” said the driver as he pulled into a dirt driveway and stopped short at a covered outdoor market.

“This is it!?” I asked. I imagined we’d see just an orchard and a barn, but this was a full scale fall festival – a bouncy house, a live band, wagon tours, a bakery and general store.

“They got everything,” the driver said. We got out the taxi and I never felt more “New York”—we were all wearing black, and big black shades, we gushed over everything, we debated New York City public school zones, and I fanned away bugs. Yeah, we were definitely very “City” at that moment.

We hit the general store for pumpkin-cinnamon and apple-sugar doughnuts and bought mesh bag to drop the apples in. On a wide expanse of cleared, yellow grass, we walked to a wagon where they were renting long handled pickers.

A man in a handed me a metal stick with a burlap bag on the end.

“It’s…heavy,” I said to him. I threw it over my shoulder, mimicking the men I’d saw crossing the farm, but it hurt. I winced silently -- determined to master this by the end of the day, and followed the girls down a path to the trees.

The orchard was beautiful in a simple way. The grass was high, and made me pause.

“You know what I really wish I were doing?” I told the girls partly in jest. “I wish I were reaping like in ‘Anna Karenina.’ Sometimes you need to reap.”

The girls nodded in agreement, but laughing.

The trees were brown, medium height, spaced apart from each other. Each had hundreds of apples at its feet, which had been mashed under pickers shoes over time, then ravaged by bees and wasps. Unlike peaches, apples grow high in the trees, in little clusters. If they’re still green they almost camouflage against the branches, like a trick to the eye.

Phillippa and I were both first-time pickers. So we were the most eager to begin.  I approached the first tree we saw. I stuck my picker up into the branches.

“That one looks good,” I said. But the apple wouldn’t budge. I twisted the claws of my picker as hard as I could, but still, nothing. Three more tries and eventually, success. Greedily, I stuck my hand in my burlap catcher and like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a bag, everyone cheered.

“The first one! The first one!”

“I’m getting so excited,” I laughed. Philippa’s approach was far more violent, when the tree wouldn’t surrender the sweetest looking apple, she thrashed it angrily and a shower of apples fell on our heads.

If not for the heat, I could have done that all day. It’s gratifying in an old-world way to pick something on your own that you will later eat or bake into a pie. The modern conveniences of food have us all detached from the process. It agitates me that picking an apple from a tree is now an activity that I must plan and pay for, that the processes at was once a necessity is now novel, and what we do to relax. There is something in us that needs those things, that there is something in us that still wants those things. I could go to any fruit stand in the city and for as many fresh apples as I liked, but we chose to go and pick them ourselves, but why? Where do we get this human obsession with authenticity?

Contemplating this, I sampled one right from the tree. It was sweet. It was delicious.

We decided to return back to the barn to find the goats, so I slung the picker over my shoulder (now accustomed to its weight and balance) and walked back to the barn.

We walked across the street to the other orchard, which had organized and doubled the size of its additional offerings (likely in competition). Their bar was more like a production: a live band, several food venders and a store where we picked up a bottle of white wine and reclined on a hay bale.

Philippa’s two friends had just been introduced to me, so we spent the next few hours talking about our lives and our work. All three of them, (Philippa included) grew up in New York City, and have families with deep roots in New York history. One girl’s family had generations upon generations that had remained on the Lower East Side, and streets that were named after great-great grandparents. I was envious instantly, that they knew so much about their families (slavery, unfortunately, cuts my family tree and history off short). But I told them what I tell every real New Yorker that I meet:

“I always wonder,” I said, “if real New Yorkers ever can appreciate it as much as I do, because it’s so foreign to me. I wonder if they understand how different it is than anywhere else.”

“We do,” they nodded, “In a different way but we do.”

We ordered turkey legs and sat cross legged listening to the band. I bought a pumpkin for Bo and some apple cider. Then we decided that we were done with the country, called a cab in our New York way, and went home.

The apples had been transported in my purse, and for a few weeks after, their sweet smell persisted.