They say gold doesn’t grow on trees, but we all know of one type that does. The common apple is not only delicious and nutritious; it is part of the fabric of human culture.

The scene is familiar. I could pull a similar narrative from almost any year of my life. We roll up to the orchard in our cars, a family gathering or a group of friends, and park in a grassy field. It’s a golden day in late September or early October and we bow our heads in the warm sun as we make our way to the barn or the farm-stand where we will collect our buckets and take instructions from the orchard keeper. Then we set out for the semi-shaded lanes of the orchard. We reach up into the gnarled, skinny branches and pull down only the most perfect specimens. We fill our buckets with dreams of pies and fritters, oatmeal toppings or a quick snack palmed on the way out the door. We pick more perhaps than we could ever eat in one season. We are setting by for winter on a warm day in autumn.

This is more than just a fall pastime. It is an ancient human tradition.

The apple has always been there for me. As a young and picky eater, it was my favorite snack, the substance of my favorite juice. It was among the first words I learned how to spell and is therefore deeply imbedded in my earliest understanding of the language. Apples mean the start of school and the changing of the leaves. In my mind they represent general good health and joie de vivre.

Some of my fondest memories of being a little kid were the annual apple picking excursion with family friends. There are pictures of me at four, climbing my first ladder to pick an apple. I remember being very little and being very impressed by the experience of gathering my own food. I had no idea how to grow an apple, but I sure could pick one. As I grew older, I became more deliberate about making sure I carved out time for this ritual each fall. When I was a freshman at Kenyon College, one of my first comfortable moments was when a few of us snuck away from campus to go apple picking in the Ohio countryside. I met the love of my life at Hope Orchards.

But it’s not just my life that the apple has wormed its way into. Indeed, I would bet that my own nostalgia for the apple is in fact genetic. There is a reason we say: ‘A is for apple’ and why we give them to our teachers. Apples are central to our deepest human narratives. They grow in both Norse and Greek mythology, as well as Judeo-Christianity and Islam. They are sustenance but also temptation.

There may be nothing as American as apple pie, but apples are not distinctly American. Anthropologists seem to agree that apples originated in their domestic form somewhere in Central Asia and began spreading around the world during the bronze age. They came to England with the Romans. They came to America with the colonists.

Wild apples don’t taste very good. The domestic apple we know and eat, malus domestica, is a human invention. Tasty apples were produced by a horticultural practice known as grafting. Two genetically related apple trees can grow together if a branch or bud is cut off one tree and lashed onto another. The resulting hybrid yields the fruit we like to eat. No one knows exactly where or when grafting was invented, or who invented it, but the fact of domestic apples existing all over Asia and Europe as far back as 4,000 years makes apple growing among the first human technologies. Apples are the classic GMO.

Apples make for a great crop because they grow in abundance toward the end of the growing season, and — even in the times before refrigeration — had a relatively long shelf-life, making them a valuable winter store. Maybe this is why they run so deep in the human imagination. They represent the shift from bounteous summer into frugal winter. The apple is change itself.Or maybe it is because they remind us of ourselves. The domestic apple has over a thousand different subvarieties. And even within each varietal, no two apples are ever the same. They are flawed, conforming individuals that grow together on the branch and fall, one by one, each in its own time.

Or maybe it’s just because they’re delicious.

Whatever the reason for their universal attraction, apples took on a special place in the American imagination. Settlers tended to plant a few apple trees first thing once they got their land cleared and a house built. It wasn’t that you could get rich from a few apple trees, but that a few of them would go a long way toward self-reliance in the wintertime. Here in Hope, according to hopehist.com, there are hardly any historic lots that didn’t have a few old apple trees growing on them. Johnny Appleseed did what he did to leave food for the common traveler. He was also grafting the roots of the old world into the new world.

In recent years, apple growers around Maine have been working to preserve the seeds of heirloom varietals that were traditionally grown here. Through good old-fashioned grafting, they are literally going back to their roots to bring us treasures from another time. Unlike their contemporary cousins, heirloom varieties were more about the purpose than the flavor. Some were meant for baking, some for cider. Some were good for eating ripe off the tree, some for lasting deep into winter.

Whatever your purpose is, make sure to go out this fall and support your local apple grower. Have fun with your loved ones and take part in an ancient pageant. Take a bite out of life.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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