Wild Apples

Taos county is full of wild apples. Every fall, Agnes and I climb under canopies of green leaves, some starting to turn red and gold, and pick their sweet fruits. It’s become a sort of tradition, Agnes picking the apples from the ground, me climbing into the upper branches and plucking them free. Sometimes, there’s nothing to do but shake their limbs and, Agnes a safe distance away, rain apples over the earth.

We do this because of the generosity of several distinct species. First and foremost is the plant kingdom, whose malus sieversii first blossomed in central Asia, where its handsome fruits attracted the eyes and fingers of foraging apes. Those apes, commonly called humans, are a second important species, because it was them that spread cultivars across the world, including to a distant outpost of the Spanish empire in the new world, Taos, New Mexico. The relationship between these two, malus sieversii and homo sapiens, eventually gave rise to a third distinct species, the cultivated variety we now call malus pumila, the apple. Along the way, countless bees, flies, bears, raccoons and goats played a significant role, not to mention the birds, the sun, the rain and the earth.

So, whenever I feel a bough flex under the weight of my foot as I reach for the uppermost branches, I give thanks. It was nature that first produced such a fruit, and it was people, distant ancestors and uncommon strangers, who brought them to Taos. And what luck, they’re still here.

Apple trees used to be in backyards across the nation, but as outlying towns and farms got incorporated into cities and subdivisions, fruit trees were often cut down. No longer seen as food, they quickly became a nuisance, their sloppy fruits creating stains on sidewalks and driveways. I can’t recall a single apple tree within five miles of the house in which I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. A hundred years earlier, there must have been hundreds. But in Taos, where people neglect them just the same, the trees are still here because there’s no reason to cut them down. In a state where land is abundant, people and money scarce, one finds old trucks and cars everywhere, adobe homes with collapsed roofs, piles of antique beer cans. And trees.

The abundance of fruit first struck me a few years ago, when one of my friends, a free-wheeling sort, started gleaning fruits in town. Sometimes he’d call and arrange a visit, but usually he’d just show up with a truck, a ladder and a few extra hands. There were a few occasions when he got into a shouting match, but by and large he got in and out without so much as a word. And even the trouble was interesting. He got reprimanded for trespassing a couple times, even threatened with the police once, but no one ever accused him of stealing. No one, it seemed, wanted the apples. They just didn’t want strangers.

I’m a little more subtle, scouting my trees throughout the summer, watching over seasons and years to see who picks their fruit, who doesn’t. I ride by on my bike, or slow down around curves with Agnes in the car. I watch. What’s interesting about Taos is that the old fruit trees (apples easily grow to a hundred, even two-hundred years old) are sometimes right in the middle of a church parking lot or an abandoned field. A hundred years ago, these were family trees on hundred-acre plots, but today many of those ancestral homes have been divided or neglected.

It took a while to get over my initial timidity, but, inspired by my friend’s boldness, I began climbing into those churchyards, hanging out in parking lots and scanning the overgrowth along acequias, the surface ditches that irrigate the land. I brought Agnes with me, and other kids too. Whenever I can, I ask (and it doesn’t hurt to have a handful of kids in tow). But more often than not there’s a good tree not too close to anyone’s home, not too far from the road, with a huge plop of rotting fruit beneath it. On such occasions I walk in right boldly, like visiting an old friend.

In Taos, we’re talking about hundreds of such trees, and pears and plums too. And apricots. So, I don’t just stuff myself with any old fruit. I sample. I know the good ones, and I watch them all summer. I visit in winter, and share a word or two for the coming year. My absolute favorite is outside the water district office in El Prado. The secretary inside is very friendly, and they’re fine with you picking apples so long as you don’t climb the trees. Liability, they say. So, I go after they close at five o’clock.

*

There was a period in my life when I was gearing myself up for an active role in the burgeoning field of gift economics. Charles Eisenstein had recently written his book Sacred Economics, and there was a notable buzz in certain circles. I invited Eisenstein and a few other speakers to a conference in Taos, and I brought apples. That event, like the book, was great, but many of the participants felt the lack of a cohesive and concise statement that encapsulated the idea. “It all sounds good – but what can I do about it?” seemed to be the perpetual lament. “How do I even talk about it?”

I worked on it. I began giving talks locally, read widely on the subject, started a website and even made a few videos. I won’t say that I succeeded, but I did keep trying. Then, as my work with kids expanded, I eventually threw in the towel. I couldn’t divide my attention so easily, and at some point I had to choose. I don’t doubt that I made the right choice, but there was a part of me that was disappointed. I liked the subject. In time, I might have done something useful.

One of the metaphors I used to encapsulate the concept of gift was the apple. At each talk, I would bring a bowl of apples I had picked and set them on the table or the podium as I talked about Marcell Mauss, gift theory and the history of ethnographic study. At the end, I would pass the apples around and explain how Agnes and I had picked them on some glorious fall day, a bit of their history, etc. “Take an apple in your hands,” I would say, “and just consider what a gift this little fruit is. It gives itself so freely.” Then I would lead us through a little meditation. Using our five senses, we looked, felt, smelled, tasted and even listened to our apples (they crunch when you bite them and nothing else in the world makes that sound).

In the final moment, as folks chewed their apples with closed eyes, I sang a song. “Lai, lai-lai-lai, lai-lai-lai, lai-lai-lai, I am alive!” There was a sweetness to it, and I hoped that the apples, the literal taste and feel of each fruit, would break up the zero-sum game of dollars and cents and help embody the essence of giving. Not altruistic giving, mind you, but cooperative giving. The trees gave freely, and yet they needed us. I sometimes think I just scared people with my singing voice.

*

In the fall, by means of a handful of visits spread out amongst September and October, Agnes and I can put up enough apples to last through April or May. That’s eating three to five apples a day from the end of August to the beginning of May, and I have no hesitation to eat ten apples in one sitting. Local organic apples usually cost $2.99/lbs at the farmer’s market or the local grocer. People buy them like hot cakes (or the “normal-looking” varieties from Chile), but they often fail to pick the trees in their own backyards, or, as the case may be, the parking lot behind the hardware store. Isn’t that weird? I usually put up six large boxes, which weigh about fifty pounds apiece. That’s about three-hundred pounds of local organic apples, $900 by retail value, or 71,000 calories. And I do it with kids. The children run and play under the trees, stuff themselves silly with apples, and help sort them in bins. I climb like a big dumb ape in the upper branches, and laugh. That’s not just $900 worth of apples. That’s a few thousand dollars’ worth of joy.

*

I was walking in the wee hours of the morning today, by the light of the setting moon. This is my habit when Agnes is sleeping with her mother. I rise early, a little before four, have a cup of tea and then walk in the dark. I often think about the coming day, or recount what went right or wrong the day before. I’m often just silent, listening to the emptiness. I have a whole routine to it, and my walk is populated with little landmarks. There’s the old abandoned house, the particular bend in the road, the telephone pole, that barky dog, the asphalt at the edge of the highway. And there are the trees. Cottonwoods and pinons, junipers and elms, apricots and apples. Each one has a special place, a special meaning for me, and I wink at them as I pass, pretending like the whole world is our big secret. This is my mind, and when the rest of the foraging apes are asleep I’m able to walk its corridors with a special sweetness.

Anyway, this morning I was thinking about what to write. I often have a subject or a moment in mind, but this morning I felt unsure. Nothing particularly wild had happened the week before. No one had slipped hopelessly down an icy embankment. No goose had strayed too close, no child too far. But urgency is the death of creativity, and as I crossed the icy spring near home I still hadn’t settled on anything. I started to become anxious. In an effort not to burden myself, I changed the subject.

In the fall of 2018, I will be forming a first-grade group, which I plan to shepherd through the eighth grade. I have been working with Silke in her kindergarten for two years now, but this will be a big change. I have a lot of clarity about what I’m doing, my mind being in alignment with my heart and gut, my soul and my body, in a way I have never before felt in my life. I’m ready for this, and I can taste it like a ripe apple. Still, it’s hard to shake all my self-doubt.

February 16 is my birthday. Last year, in keeping with my interest in gift economy, I invited everyone I knew to a large party where I made a bunch of food and gave away all sorts of presents. That party cost me a month’s salary, and that was partly the point, a sort of cosmic thank-you for the joy of life. This year, as the date approached, I decided to call a meeting instead. I intend to announce my plans for the next school year.

I have all sorts of ideas for what I’m going to say, but one of the things I’ve been hovering around is finances - my finances, the school’s finances, the parents’ finances. What do I ask these parents to contribute? Some of them can easily afford private school. Some of them can hardly afford anything. I need to earn a living, but I don’t want to choose children based on their parents’ ability to pay. In the end, I want to do the biggest and best thing, the hugest and most spectacular, and in order to do that my heart tells me that, above all, I have to look for the right children, not the right dollars. I expect the first year to be a loss.

I’ve been stewing on all this for some time and this morning, just as I crunched the last few gravelly steps up the driveway, just as the moon began to dip below the horizon, just as the first few folks began to wake up, I finally reached a consensus. I’m doing it in the gift.

Here’s how it will work. I live on $1,500/month. That’s not much as far as some people go, but it’s a lot to ask a handful of parents. On top of that, I believe I’ll have to rent a classroom space, maybe another $500/month. And there will be materials too. And field trips. Every month I’m going to itemize my expenses, including a reasonable salary, and share it openly with the parents. Along with it, I will publish what other teachers are charging for similar arrangements, then ask parents to contribute what they can.

I know dozens of folks who will tell me that this won’t work. You can’t give away everything for free. People don’t know how to value things if you don’t give them a price. It works in the Trobriand Islands, but not here. Part of me believes them, but I’m ready to shrug that doubt aside. I believe I can do this, and partly that’s because – and this is important - even if it fails it will be worth the effort. It takes experimentation, it takes guts, to birth a new way of being. Last year, my birthday was a sort of cosmic thank-you. This year, it’s a coming out party. I’m big and I’m strong. And I’m ready to do what’s right.

In all likelihood, the structure of the school and the finances will probably shift several times before we fall into a sustainable rhythm. I have the great fortune, and the weight, of an ego the size of the moon. Maybe it takes egomaniacs like me to take some of these big leaps. I wonder what Neil Armstrong was like?

Besides, there are plenty of others out there who are already doing it. I know them personally, and I read about them too. Teachers are changing the way they teach. Others are changing the way they charge. All over the world, people are changing the way they live, the way they feed and sustain themselves. It doesn’t work for everyone, and there are always more examples of failure than there are of success. But failure is like boredom, you have to plow through acres of it to cultivate a truly magnificent success. So, I’m willing to fail.

*

There is a common ethic one finds in many progressive circles: recycle, reuse, waste nothing. The earth is full of trash. We’re at our limit. Save the whales. Don’t flush the toilet. This kind of thinking has bored so deeply in my mind that I would find it hard to recognize myself without it. I am a living, breathing efficiency maniac.

But as I paid more attention to the apples, and the principles of gift economy, I started to wonder about the ethic of waste, of efficiency. The trees shower fruit upon the earth, far too much to be useful. Even the animals can’t eat it all. Maple trees are like this too, and pine cones. Have you ever seen those funny trees that make those spikey green balls? Gum trees, apparently. Come fall, they cover the ground. Acorns too. What’s with all those seeds? And rose bushes and gooseberries, fields of grain, and whole nations covered with grass? The earth is covered in seeds, more than could ever be eaten, more than could ever be germinated.

And it’s not just the plants. The animals do it too. Not all of us, but consider just one example, the biggest. Do you know what whales eat? The largest of them all, the blue whale, which is considered the largest animal to ever have existed, far larger than any of the dinosaurs, eats tiny little shrimp called krill. Krill are like little ocean bugs, hardly larger than a centipede, and there are so many of them that as many as 25,000 blue whales feed almost exclusively on them. And that’s just the blue whales. There are also the fin whales, minke whales, humpback whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish. It’s an ocean smorgasbord. And don’t think for a second that they eat them all. Consider how many krill go uneaten and reproduce! And goodness, just imagine what those little krill are eating.

There are countless examples of such abundance in the world, but many deserts and starving children too. I am not suggesting a reckless consumption, nor a tacit belief in the of kind of abundance that sometimes masquerades for greed in new-age circles. It’s quite evident that humans have over-harvested much of the world’s wealth. Recycling and reducing our waste is important, as is the basic logic of a simple life. But there is more to life than scrimping and saving, which for some of us can lead to stinginess. I’m one of them. On occasion, my tendency to waste not and want not leads me to share not. I even observe this with the kids. On more than one occasion I have grown anxious because a three-year old knocked over a plate of snacks into the dirt. That’s a three-year-old ape, Joe, not an efficiency expert. And you’re filling her with stress.

Somehow, a balance needs to be struck.

*

Last fall, as apple season came to Taos, I felt a lingering sadness. There would be no fruit this year, no romping under trees with the children, no hefting large bins into my hands. There would be no shoveling snow off the root cellar come winter, no ducking inside and smelling their dingy aromas then returning with a treasure chest. The frosts had come late that spring, killing most of the blossoms before the bees had a chance to pollinate. This happens every year to some of the trees, but last year it hit almost all of them. All my old friends, including the old squat tree outside the water district office, were barren.

The loss of those apples wasn’t a life or death situation. Like most folks, most of my food comes from the grocery store. There are always more apples from Washington state, or Chile. There are foods from all over the planet in my pantry. It’s important for me to reckon with these facts, just as it’s important for me to reckon with the global food system, which includes all sorts of uncomfortable subjects like monocrops, GMO’s, pesticides and hormones. Because of those uncomfortable subjects, we’re feeding over seven billion people on this planet. Those are living, breathing humans out there, not parasites, and I care about them, just like I care about the folks at Monsanto.

It’s a complicated picture, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’m not sure I have even one of them. But the essence of gift economy informs me, just as the apples do, and the whales, the cactus and the sage. I may not fruit every year, but when I do I’m going to give myself away with a gentle and magnificent humility.

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