By Thorpe Moeckel
We gathered on Thursday afternoon. We gathered blowdowns, plucked them from the ground. No experts on apples, we were surprised by how round the Staymans were. And their color, like leaves of dogwood trees growing on a west slope two weeks after first frost, inspired a haunted kind of thirst.
It was a windy day, October, cool air from the northwest, the third day of that wind and cold. There were bees, yellow jackets and honeybees. They moved sloppily, drunk on apple. They would have been more drunk were the air warmer. I was delighted with the bees, delighted with the whole frenetic, repetitive process. I thought, we could be in some office right now, both of us, letting strangers or televisions raise our kid, but here we are, a young family, picking apples with the wind and the bees – how lucky we are.
We filled old spackle buckets, white and splotched and still attached to their handles. We knelt and squatted or else bent at the waist and snatched apple after apple. Make your hand like you were a bear and had claws and were excited – that’s how round they were, that’s how they fit in your hand.
You take a Stayman and hold it close to your face and you’re looking into a supernova at the speed of dark divided by light. Or else you’re looking like a lunatic, staring close-up at an apple of all things. But maybe you’re looking at a cross section of blood the moment it knows the world outside the body. It is as if a Stayman couldn’t decide between being green and blue but red was lobbying hard, showing all its best sides while acknowledging its worst.
The Stayman apple is part of a story with subplots as kaleidoscopic as the fruit’s color and taste. Apples, of course, are not native to America. They are believed to have originated in the forests of Tien Shan mountain range, at the border of China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. By Medieval times apples were widespread in Europe, but even then they were viewed with suspicion, associated with the Fall, and thought to cause upset stomachs and ill humors.
I was thinking of none of this as we picked, at least not consciously. If you’d come along and said that each apple seed is a hive of genetic heritage and variety, that one seed can contain as many as eighty-five chromosomes, that almost every tree grown from seed is a new variety, and that its fruit may be nothing like its mother tree, I would have said, neat, give us a hand, watch out for the bees. And if you’d continued telling me that Stayman is a variety of Winesap, that it was discovered in 1866, in Leavenworth, Kansas, by a Dr. J. Stayman, and that it has been grafted and cultivated ever since for its mildy tart, spicy taste and muted red, striped and mottled color, I would have thought, the wind has more to say about apples than you or Google ever will.
The trees were as wide as, if not wider than, they were tall. As we moved beneath them, it was soon very apparent that the trees’ shapes were as variable as the apples’ hue patterns and variations of round. It had to do with sun and pruning, but more to do with something else, something elusive and true. Certain trees were easier to move beneath than others, in other words. Sophie, who was eight then, volunteered to work under trees with low branches. The bark, knobby and plated, was gray like a foggy window. And splotched with darker grays and blacks. Somebody had cut the grass recently, which made fetching the fallen fruit easier.
We worked like we were about to get caught, like the wind, blowing hard, was about to blow them, or us, all away. We reached and we grabbed and we squeezed, checking for soft spots. We bucketed two for every three. Working outside in a cold, hard wind fosters a kind of interiority that, when it rubs against what you’re doing externally, physically, creates a pleasant, slightly electric friction and weariness. They were good apples, good trees. The ground under some trees more populated with apples than others. Like a hailstorm. Like scree. Like apples in an orchard on a day of wind after a night and prior day and night of wind.
We took breaks. We turned over empty buckets and sat on them and couldn’t even eat a whole apple, they were so much in our hands and eyes. We didn’t know how many we had, but we knew we had a lot, so we gleaned even more. I felt greedy and ecstatic for a while, and then tired, grateful, happy. We filled buckets. We hauled buckets. Sometimes we lay in the grass and watched the clouds and breathed the apple air. And then we started gathering again.
It wasn’t long, three or four hours give or take, before we had the apples on the scale one bucket at a time. The bill for three hundred and seventy-four pounds of apple at eighteen cents a pound, ran close to seventy dollars. We settled up with the orchard keeper, who with red and splotchy cheeks resembled a Stayman herself. After a brief walk around the store, checking out the apple products and appley folk art, we hit the road, our old Dodge pickup less giddy with the apple weight than we were from filling it.
* * * *
Where we live, between the Shenandoah and Roanoke Valleys, near Interstate 81 and the town of Buchanan, Virginia, the James River leaves the Alleghenies at Purgatory Mountain, bends and flows north a ways before turning east again, joining spirits with the Maury River to cut through the Blue Ridge at Balcony Falls. It is a place of transition and confluences and very old mountains – there’s a kind of ennobling erosion at work geologically, economically, and socially. In general, people do what they can to make ends meet, and they continue to prefer both the best and worst of the old ways over the new.
It is not a good place if you need Yoga Classes, Iced Mocha Chai Pumpkin Pie Lattes, high speed Internet, or the like. If you favor woods and rivers, pastures and creeks, then you’re in the spot. There’s a lot of National Forest, and the area is just far enough from both Roanoke and Lexington that its open country has not yet succumbed to those rank colonies of meadow mansions, nor to the seven figure horse farms whose owners spend much of the year somewhere else. Our friend Tommy, it turns out, was born in a house they tore down to build Interstate 81 in the Fifties. His family then moved to a chunk of hillside further up Dry Branch, a limestone drainage that drops — dramatically at times — to the James.
Though he’s worked a ton of jobs, among them paving roads and building houses and fixing cars and selling firewood and gathering hellgrammites and even for a while cutting red oak shingles at the pioneer lifeway exhibit at Peaks of Otter — Tommy makes a living hauling junk nowadays. Junking, he calls it. He moves it in his truck, a ’71 International, lifts it on the flat bed with a pump jack and boom or else his own hands and back and legs. Old woodstoves, trailers, farm equipment, lamps, magazines – whatever people want rid of – he moves it in his truck to the dump or scrap yard.
Some things he keeps. Like the 50 gallon copper kettle. “This was half in the ground when I found it on a junking job,” he told us. “This was trash.” It was Thursday. Tommy had brought the kettle from the machine shop in Natural Bridge. He’d seen our pile of apples and was excited as oil in a hot skillet. “You see how they patched it?” he asked, pointing to the kettle. But it was a statement.
We saw. His buddy at the shop had riveted copper sheets as patches where the rough spots had been. It was good, clean work. Tommy would settle for nothing less. “I hope it holds butter,” he said.
“I like the legs,” Sophie offered. They’d welded the kettle to a ring of steel and to that ring three steel legs. Tempered steel, black as the kettle would be after fifteen hours on the fire.
“This thing is old,” Tommy mused. For a moment, I wondered about his father, whom I had never met. It was hard to tell who Tommy was talking to right then. “Real old,” Tommy continued. The way he said it made you think he’d imagined being there, making the pot, hammering and shaping the copper. Imagined each stage of the process, from obtaining the copper to the design to the tools and how you’d hold the tools. The way a person thinks who day or night will cheerfully drop what he’s doing to help you, who each winter – gratefully, graciously — butchers several hogs, and each spring resurrects the riding mowers salvaged from junking and sells them, like he sells and barters the pork, for a fair price to neighbors and friends and friends of neighbors and friends.
“Yeah,” Tommy continued. “It looks tarnished now, but wait till the butter comes out. The acids in the apple will have it shining like a new penny.”
Kirsten, my wife, laughed her wild, elegant laughter. “Look at the stir stick,” she said.
Tommy said, “A trivy.” It looked like a Modernist’s rendition of a praying mantis. I thought of Cracker Barrel restaurants along the highway, where such tools live on the wall, as decorations, totems for travelers in highway dreamtime. “Called a trivy.” It was new. There were still blade marks from the saw and dust on the salvaged pine. Tommy had made it over the last week, taken the design off a broken one salvaged from a shed on a junking job. I wanted to ask whose shed, but Tommy’s quiet about his customers. He respects people too much, and is too tidy, too thrifty to give away information so private as to what a man or woman stores in basement, attic, shed, or barn. “You learn about people when you haul their junk,” Tommy’s said many times. “Things you wanted to know and also a lot you don’t want to know.”
The trivy was eight feet long and stout. A two foot length with a groove cut out of the middle was fastened to the end that went in the pot. He called it the paddle, not because it resembled a paddle but because it paddled through the butter. “It doesn’t smell like apples yet,” Tommy said. “But after Saturday it’ll never not smell like apples again, no matter how much you wash it.”
Five feet from the paddle end, there was a piece of wood that crossed the main shaft in fashion of a lower case t. The stirrer held an end of this with one hand and the back of the shaft with the other hand. The design allowed for two folks to stir together, a feature indigenous to the work’s social nature. Both the paddle and handle were fastened with steel braces, ninety degree braces from the same machine shop as patched the kettle. It was a large, imposing tool, yet there was a simplicity to the design that suggested it’d be efficient to work after warming up to it.
* * * *
By eight Friday evening, after an hour of working the apples, there was an air of ferocious levity about the kitchen where we sat, four of us alternately peeling and slicing and every now and then sharpening knives. It helped to feel a bit of anger for getting into such an ordeal – I peeled faster that way. No matter how many different types of music the stereo played, none of it sounded good. Silence wasn’t doing the trick either. The smell of Staymans, so delightful while picking, was almost oppressive. When we stood, if we stood, we waded between buckets and bags – whole apples, peeled skins, cut apples. It was a massacre of fruit, scalped and cored. We were far too sober for such work, it seemed. But maybe not. We each cut our fingers at least once. Among the various supplies garnered for our gig — spices, Mason Jars, lids, food – nobody thought to bring Band-Aids. Luckily we had duct tape; bloody apples wouldn’t do.
We soon stopped worrying about peeling thin, about seeing the light through the peels. We weren’t entirely wasteful either. The peels were some in our compost the next day and some in our chickenyard. I asked Tommy if he wanted to give some to his hogs.
“No,” he said.
“It gives them the runs. Their feed runs right through them, defeats the purpose. The point’s to fatten them up.”
Time trickled to swipes of the blade. We peeled and cored and sliced. There were many pounds peeled and many, many pounds not peeled. I was too tired not to fret. It was perfect. I was glad my daughter was staying up past midnight, working with us. She’s always looked up to Tommy and not just because it’s like he’s stepped out of her Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Tonight he was outdoing the books. She was living her own chapter. We were in the project together, sure, but it was Tommy’s show. We could have been doing it without him, maybe, but we wouldn’t have been.
As with any repetitive handiwork, we grew more efficient to a point and then less so. By one in the morning, with a lot of apples still to peel, my learning curve dipped. I started throwing peels in the wrong bucket. Tommy’s daughter and two friends had showed up past midnight and they’d provided a boost of energy, if not accuracy, for us all.
Cherokee and her pals left around 1:30. We peeled until 3AM. Kirsten’s hands were fully purple now from a reaction with the apple acids. Hot water and soap didn’t help. Tommy had mentioned a pal of his turning purple to the elbows on a previous buttering mission. Apparently Kirsten and this guy had similar chemistry.
If the rest of us weren’t purple, we were sticky with juice. We were doused with apple essence. The whole kitchen reeked. The floor was sticky. Pants were sticky, arms and shirts, chairs and counters and tables. Even our laugh and talk and delirium was sticking together. Ants from a long way off must have caught a whiff; we’d never seen so many on our counters and floors.
“When was the last time you did this?” I asked Tommy at some point late, real late.
“Ten or twelve years back,” he said.
“A good batch?”
“Didn’t even get a pint jar of the stuff,” said him. “Don’t know how it tasted.”
He muttered something about a big party and moonshine and giving it all away. I thought, we’re doing this with the right person.
* * * *
A thin sliver of orange lay on the eastern ridges when we started the fire later that morning. The wind was still feisty, on and off but mostly on. And from no particular direction. We’d humped the kettle to the fire, situated its three legs just so. We were set up thirty yards from the front porch, between the maples, one of which still had a fair number of yellow leaves, some rattling, others riding the wind. I’d split a heap of red oak and the pile was not too close by. There was a table for snacks and other equipment. We hauled the bins of shaved and cored and sliced apples and added a couple of pounds as well as some grape juice to the kettle, then started taking turns with the trivy.
It was all butter from there. We stirred. We chatted. We looked at the hills and the trees and the fields, at the crows and buzzards and hawks and dog and sun. We looked at each other, too, looked like fellow convicts guilty of innocent, perhaps noble crimes. Mostly we watched the apples and the paddle moving them around. You watched the smoke too. You watched it swirl and change and move. You rocked your hips as you worked the trivy, tried to be easy about it.
It was drowsy work. I stared from woods to barn to garden. There were still cherry tomatoes on the vines. Two weeks prior, we’d harvested a bushel of sweet potatoes. The beds had a burnished glow to them, deeply green, the way gardens look after a couple of light frosts, their last hurrah before the hard freezes to come. Drowsy work is indiscriminate in terms of where your thoughts go; staring down the handle of the trivy, at the kettle, the sliced Stayman turning mushy there, I thought of many things, not all of them pretty.
Each time the fresh apples softened such that the stirring – twice around and once across – grew easy, Tommy added more. We were taking ten minute turns on the trivy – sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. It went on, this dance, the apples in charge, the fire, the smoke, the stirring.
The kettle blackened. We banked the fire. With the wind as it was, and even with the windbreaks we’d fashioned around the pit, the fire was tearing through the wood. There was smoke off the fire and smoke off the kettle. What else can be said? It went on like this. The day became a season. And though the process was at heart a similar sort of reduction, it differed from making our weekly stocks and broths; we had to be present now, active. There was no leaving these apples in the Crock-pot for a couple of days.
By two in the afternoon, all the apples were in the kettle. By four I knew our bodies would be butter before the apples. Mine already was. I looked at Tommy. Everything about him said there was no place he’d rather be. The man was a lot like his kettle, it seemed – copper-solid, 50 gallons of capacity.
Friends and neighbors had stopped by to help, starting in the afternoon. Some of them seemed to do it out of duty, and appeared pensive, solemn, as though they were visiting a grave. I suppose there was a part of them mourning a process that used to be as regular as the falling of the leaves. The younger families were more jazzed by the scene. It was festive. There were kids running around. The wind, which would blow gusty all day and into the night, pushed hard on us all. Butch and Mare from down the road had turned out their horses on our pasture, and the filly mares were acting especially frisky with the wind, galloping now and then around the old, wizened catalpa. There was chit chat, music, gossip, stories. Near dusk Tommy started tasting the butter with a wooden spoon. Our visitors had gone home by then. “We got a long while yet,” he kept saying well into dark. “It’s got to come down another couple inches.”
Late that night Tommy started adding sugar. Later than that, he added – carefully, mysteriously– drops of cinnamon and clove condensed in oil. Near the end, the butter only moved off the wooden spoon when you flicked it hard enough. It was as thick as we were weary and satisfied. Close to midnight I looked at the fire from the table where we were ladling butter into Masons and screwing caps onto those jars. By the light of the shop-lamp’s single bulb, I could see we’d worn a circle in the grass eight feet around the fire and pot. It was our orbit, our stirring orbit. We’d moved to avoid the smoke. We’d moved for another view. We’d moved because the apples moved and the motion boiled us too, cooked us down. A few months later, we’d be smearing the butter on a pork roast and feel that moving start up again. We’d feel it, too – the soil, the fire, the living – when handing pints and quarts to coworkers and folks in town. It would never really go away.
Thorpe Moeckel teaches English and Environmental Studies at Hollins University and works a small farm with his wife and daughter in Western Virginia. He is the author of two books of poems, Odd Botany and Making a Map of the River. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in many places, among them Poetry, Orion, The Virginia Quarterly Review, ISLE, Field, The Southern Review, Permaculture Activist, Mothering, and Wild Earth.