When we first came here, we could not think of a farm without an orchard. Yet here we were on our newly acquired acreage, and though it had woods to please, fields for animals, and a fenced patch for the vegetables, it had no orchard of fruit trees. So one of our first purchases was a batch of fruit tree rootstocks. We went back to town and made cuttings from the trees on the place we were leaving. We went to the neighbors and begged sticks from their backyard apples, and Asian or European pears, and plums, and figs. We paced out the orchard space in the pasture, placed markers, and stuck our tiny trees into hollows in the ground. This looked like the most miniature orchard I had ever seen.
It’s been a while coming, but year by year we have seen fruiting, first of the Asian pears, then the European pears. We had a few apricots last year. The crab apples gave us a great cider season last fall. And this summer, at last, the Gravenstein apple has produced a crop.
The Gravenstein is the apple of my childhood. It is the strong, husky tree I climbed on the knoll at my grandparents’ house. It is the apple I picked off the sun-dried grass to eat, fragrant and wormy, in the long afternoons of August. Its sweet-tart flavor, its streaks of red on a field of gold, its short-stemmed hand-rounding perfection… this is the apple as it should be in poem and in life.
It seems I am not alone in my regard for the Gravenstein apple. It has a long history as a staple of the orchard, beginning, perhaps, in 1669 in Gråsten in South Jutland, Denmark. Though it is not a keeping apple, it is a fine pie apple, sauce apple, hand apple. Its short shelf life and its habit of ripening in a disorderly way, some today, some another day or week, make it unsuccessful as a market apple today. It was once a mainstay of apple commerce in North America, however, displaced in Sonoma only when grape culture turned a greater profit. It’s a treasure of the season, to be taken while the taking is in view.
Aside from the virtues of any particular apple, the making of trees from other trees is a magical undertaking. You get a small cutting from a branch and carry it away. In that cutting is the potential for another complete tree. Joined to the wood of an established rootstock, it will mature into an example of its parent, complete in every way. The handing on of plants through cuttings is an ancient practice, and one that still contains in its heart something mysterious and beyond understanding. Here the history of the fruit, and the spirit of another time come to us in the smells and flavors of a tree propagated through grafted cells. Here is a moment of connection to another era and another garden. This warm fruit in my hand, this Gravenstein apple: its bright juice fell onto another tongue one summer afternoon, in an orchard far from here, perhaps to a 50-something woman who smiled as the broken fruit sweetened her mouth, and she tossed the core to her ewes, hopeful at the fence.