Delivered at Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax on September 16, 2007
I’ve been out of seminary for a few years now, really. I loved Meadville Lombard, and I hated it too, at times. One thing I can say for sure is that I learned a lot in the classroom, and I learned even more outside of it. Gossip in the hallways was one of my richest resources for learning how ministry actually works. I learned public speaking skills shouting across crowded tables at the Divinity School Coffee Shop, and picked up a fair bit of theology over the wine-infused worship services at vespers. But my very favorite real world classroom was the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, Wisconsin. My dear friend and classmate Naomi and I would get up at 3 in the morning and drive for hours on the flat midwestern highways in the dark. We wanted to get to the market before anything ran out, before the crowd became impossibly thick, and while the pain au chocolat was fresh from the oven at L’Eoile. We would wander around the courthouse square where the market was held, and complain about our professors while we scrutinized vegetables and got excitable over new cheeses. (Wisconsin really does have some exquisite artisanal cheeses.) By 10 AM we’d hop back in the car with duffel bags full of whatever was in season. The conversations with Naomi touched on theology, permaculture, agriculture, and the complexities of culture in general. The produce was itself an education in complexity. Garlic, 14 varieties. Lettuce, 18 varieties. Potatoes, 28 varieties!
Apples. 54 varieties.
54 varieties! I was astounded by the sheer diversity of them. There were red ones, brown ones, green ones, yellow ones, one that was almost black and tasted like almonds. Some were as small as olives, and a couple varietals tipped the scales at five pounds. I had grown up feeling like I was really sophisticated because I ate Granny Smiths instead of Red Delicious; I’d had no idea of the range and number of apples in the world. The market was my school. 54 varieties! Each time we visited the market I would buy more than I can eat, just one or two of each variety, in a doomed effort to sample all the apples.
It was particularly futile when you consider how many apples there actually are in the word--upwards of 20,000 cultivated varieties. It’s a little difficult to keep precise track at that order of magnitude. Apples are ubiquitous is Canada, as they are many other places. How did there come to be so many? And so popular, both in our mythologies and our pantries? How did the lives of humans and apples become so entwined? Well the answer is terrifically complicated, but we’re going to make a stab at it. Let’s start at the beginning.
8,000 BCE—Nomadic hunter/gatherer societies undertake early agriculture and begin to settle throughout the fertile crescent from the Nile through the Tigris and Euphrates. As both trade and military expeditions begin among these earliest civilizations, apples begin to spread. Originating in the forests of the Tien Shan mountains in what is now Eastern Kazakhstan, they quickly carve out a cultural and ecological niche nearly everywhere they go.
5,000 BCE—Feng Li, a Chinese diplomat, writes "The Precious Book of Enrichment”. This text promotes apple growing as a commercial venture and relates detailed grafting techniques.
1500 BCE—A tablet found in northern Mesopotamia records the sale of an apple orchard for the significant sum of 3 prized breeder sheep. Hittite Law Codes specify a three shekel penalty for anyone allowing a fire to destroy an apple orchard. And that’s back when a shekel was worth something!
800 BCE—Homer's Odyssey recounts the memory of his fruit orchard to his aging father:
"12 pear trees bowing with their pendant load,
and ten, that red with blushing apples glow'd". . .
401 BCE—Greek historian and essayist, Xenophon is so inspired by walled fruit gardens throughout the Persian empire that he establishes one on his own estate in Greece. He then proceeds to coin a new Greek word from the Persian pairidaeza, or walled garden, later becoming the Latin paradisus, and finally the English paradise.
100 BCE—Roman poet Horace notes that Italy has nearly become one big fruit orchard. Apples moved west with the rise of the Roman empire as the Romans adopted the apples and orchard skills of the Greeks and Persians before them. They proceeded to carry apples to the far reaches of the Roman Empire including continental Europe and the British Isles where previously only crab apples were known.
50 BCE—Cicero, author, statesman, and philosopher urges his Roman countrymen to save their apple seeds from dessert to develop new cultivars.
79 CE—Pliny the Elder in his Natural History describes 20 varieties of apples.
100 CE--The Lady or Api Apple, is first cultivated. This apple is still being grown today.
200 CE--Greek physicians Galen and later Hippocrates, recommend sweet apples with meals as aids to digestion and sour apples only for fainting and constipation.
400 CE—Saint Jerome, founder of Monasticism, tells his monks to spend more time grafting and budding fruit trees "to escape sloth and the devil".
1100 CE--As the Roman Empire declined, however, so did apple growing. In fact, many of the varieties and techniques would have been lost had it not been for the monastic orcharding traditions of the Christian church through the twelfth century. In the East, apple growing flourished under the rise of Islam, which encouraged botany and raised it to an art form.
1240 CE—Albertus Magnus of Cologne, bishop, naturalist, and influential philosopher, agonizes in his text De Vegetabilibus over whether a fruit tree has a soul. Discarding the scholastic concept of fruit as a ready-made product of creation, Albertus held that cultivars developed from wild forms, thus foreshadowing Darwin.
1470 CE—Hugo Van Der Goes paints The Fall of Man. By portraying the apple tree in the in clear detail of both leaves and fruit, Van Der Goes sets the standard interpretation of this biblical fruit tree.
1618 CE—William Lawson of Yorkshire, writes A New Orchard and Garden. It is the first book in the English language about the practical aspects of apple growing. He is often quoted on his sensual observations. "All delight in orchards," says Lawson. "For whereas every other pleasure fills some one of our senses, and that only with delight, this makes all senses swim in pleasure". "What can your eyes desire to see, your ears to hear, your mouth to taste, your nose to smell that is not to be had in an orchard, with abundance of variety."
And we’ll stop there with world history. Later we’ll pick up the timeline in Canada, but for now I invite you to rise as you are comfortable and join in singing:
Hymn # 175: We Celebrate The Web of Life
We’re exploring apples from a few different angles today. The science of them is one of the most fascinating. Nobody says it better than Michael Pollan in his book “The Botany of Desire”, so I’m going to quote him directly.
Slice an apple through at its equator, and you will find five small chambers arrayed in a perfectly symmetrical starburst—a pentagram. Each of the chambers holds a seed (occasionally two) of such a deep lustrous brown that they might have been oiled and polished by a woodworker. Two facts about these seeds are worth noting. First, they contain a small quantity of cyanide, probably a defense the apple evolved to discourage animals from biting into them; they’re almost indescribably bitter.
The second, more important fact about these seeds concerns their genetic contents, which are likewise full of surprises. Every seed in that apple, if planted, would bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents. If not for grafting—the ancient technique of cloning trees—every apple tree in the world would be its own distinct variety, and it would be impossible to a keep a sweet, tasty apple around beyond the life span of that particular tree.
And as mentioned previously it was the Chinese who first perfected grafting, as they did so many other things.
The botanical term for this genetic variability is “heterozygosity”. While there are many species that can be termed heterozygous, including human beings, in the apple the tendency is extreme. More than any other single trait, it is the apple’s genetic variability that accounts for its ability to make itself at home in places as different from one another as Nova Scotia and New Zealand. The site of origin of the apple, in Kazakhstan, is named Alma-Ata, “father of the apple”. The vast variety of apples in the world are reflected in miniature in these forests, where every tree is unique in nearly every aspect.
Wherever the apple tree goes, its offspring propose so many different variations on what it means to be an apple—at least five per apple, several thousand per tree—that a couple of these novelties are almost bound to have whatever qualities it takes to prosper in the tree’s adopted home.
The botany of the apple—the fact that the one thing it won’t do is come true from seed—meant that its history would be a history of heroic individuals, rather than groups or types or lines. There is, or at least there was, a single Golden Delicious tree, of which every other Golden Delicious tree has been a grafted clone. The parent tree stood for decades on a hillside in Clay County, West Virginia, where it lived out its golden years inside a padlocked steel cage wired with a burglar alarm. Where the original Red Delicious grew a granite monument today stands between rows of corn on an Iowa farm. Whether for sweet apples, or a lovely scent, or simply for genetic information, each individual apple tree is unique and deserving of note, for it will never come again.
Human beings and apples are entrained as species. What does this mean in practical terms? In other words, how does eating apples affect us? Does "an apple a day keep the doctor away"?
Apples have many healing qualities, in fact. For most people, they are to digest and can correct over-acidity of the stomach. They are particularly rich in pectin. In the body pectin helps to regulate digestion. It forms a protective coating in the intestines and soothes inflamed tissues. Apples are also highly recommended for balancing blood sugar levels, as they moderate spikes and lows.
Apple tea, prepared by infusing minced fruit or peels in hot water, increases uric acid elimination and is helpful as a supportive remedy in the treatment of arthritic and rheumatic conditions. An apple at bedtime improves the quality of sleep and helps to control night sweats.
Apple blossom petals can be infused as a tea to treat feverish conditions, especially those that affect the upper respiratory tract. Apple blossom tea also soothes and calms the nerves.
Apple cider vinegar is also excellent for a whole host of health conditions. It is rich in calcium and can help to improve calcium deficiency related problems such as loss of concentration and memory, weak muscle tone, poor circulation, badly healing wounds, general itchiness, aching joints and lack of appetite. Apple cider vinegar detoxifies by supporting the eliminative function of the kidneys. Thus, it is a helpful supportive aid for arthritis, gout, rheumatism and skin conditions. It is also beneficial for sinusitis, high blood pressure, migraine, chronic exhaustion and night sweats. To drink apple cider vinegar, dilute one tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in 6-8 oz of water. This may be sweetened with honey.
Apples are useful to us in so many ways, as we are useful to them. Like many other domesticated plants, the apple trees have found a niche in which humans will do the work of propagating their species for them. They return the favour in many ways. Having evolved together for these many millenia, we belong to each other.
Hymn #317 We Are Not Our Own
The varieties of apples that you find in most supermarkets are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most delicious or nutritious, the most fragrant or freshest apples available. They are instead the apples that ship the best, keep the longest, and look the most appealing on display. Red Delicious apples are particularly renowned for looking lovely—and retaining salability--long after the peak of flavour. Now don’t get me wrong, the Red Delicious is a fine apple. Many supermarket apples will do, mind you, or even do nicely, but if you have the choice I highly recommend patronizing your local grower or farmer’s market.
When I first moved to Lunenburg, I felt very excited to visit the farmer’s market. I wanted to feel the bustle of the crowds as I walked down aisle after aisle of produce. Except that it wouldn’t really be right to say that there was even one aisle… it was more like a medium sized cocktail party, with people milling around an open space with carrots and baguettes in their hands instead of martini glasses and appetizers.
For a while, I didn’t know anyone, and then I got to know the Svenja Dee, the florist. Svenja and I were pregnant at the same time and we smiled encouragingly at each other’s bumps for months before we actually started talking. Once I did get to chatting with her, she brought out a jar of a wonderful local honey from beneath all the bouquets. It has since become a staple in my kitchen. And after a while Svenja introduced me to Kevin Veinotte. Kevin has a farm with lots of happy cows and even more happy chickens. We eat his meat and eggs nearly every day. Kevin also just won Woodlot of the year for all of Nova Scotia. He’s having an open woodlot day in a couple weeks, if any of you would like to come down to Lunenburg county and visit some ecologically sustainable Christmas trees with me. I’ve offered to cook a picnic of local foods beforehand for anyone who makes the trip. The details are on my blog.
So anyway, it was Kevin who introduced me to Bruce Zwicker, the fruit and vegetable king of the Lunenburg farmer’s market, and that fall it was Bruce who sold me my first Honeycrisp.
Now I have always loved apples and I have especially always loved crisp apples, the crisper the better. I prefer my apples on the sweet side as well, however, and I’ve never been able to quite satisfactorily negotiate the tension between those two attributes. Until I encountered the Nova Scotia Honeycrisp. As firm and crunchy as a Granny Smith, a good Honeycrisp can compete with the best of the Supermarket sweets. It immediately rocketed to the top of my list of favorite apples and has stayed there ever since. When I eat one, I try to take a moment to go deep, to bite mindfully, to seek a sense of how the apple drew nourishment through the sun and earth, through roots and stem. I allow the apple to call me into the now, and the crunch and the juice and the smell of the flesh—this is spiritual practice.
Role Call of Canadian-Grown Apples
Unfortunately, no Canadian apples that begin with zed.
Canadian Apple History
I spoke with Bernice d’Entremont at the Musee Acadien this week about the apple trees in their heritage garden. You may have read about it in the Herald. They have replicated a late 17th century Acadian garden, replete with apple trees. The varietal? Belliveau apples, from France. She told me that they look for apple trees on old pre-expulsion farmsteads as a sign that they are Acadian, for they were known for having lots of apple trees. When I asked her whether they were cultivated sweet apples or apples for hard cider, she allowed that since they drank plenty of beet wine and parsnip wine they probably did drink hard cider. I have an easy recipe for hard cider, if anyone’s interested. I’ll post it to my blog. In addition to the apples, though, Acadian settlers highly valued apple trees for their wood—strong and durable, apple wood is terrific for building and fencing. It’ll burn hot and long on a fire on a cold winter’s night.
In the 1860s, Nova Scotia apples started receiving rave reviews from Britain. By the 1930s, Nova Scotia was exporting 75% of its production to the UK, but that changed dramatically with the outbreak of war, and by the time the war ended, Europe had beefed up its own production.
In the late 19th Century a New Brunswick man, Frances Peabody Sharpe, developed two varieties, the New Brunswick Apple and Crimson Beauty. The Crimson Beauty is still grown in many Canadian orchards today.
Even before 1850 there were established orchards in several areas of Québec. Most of the trees were grown from seed, so again, they were used for cider. Fruit growing areas found in the Isle of Orléans near Ville de Québec date back to the days of France's presence in Québec.
Historical records in Ontario indicate that apples were grown in the Niagara region as early as 1790. The first McIntosh tree was discovered in 1811 at Dundela, Dundas County, Ontario by John McIntosh, the son of Scottish immigrants. Today, McIntosh are cultivated in nearly every apple growing area of North America.
Apples were introduced to Manitoba in 1874 using stock from Ontario and Russia. The harsh prairie climate discouraged growers, however in the 20th century, breeders at University of Saskatchewan and the Canadian Department of Agriculture research farm at Morden, Manitoba, developed some hardy varieties.
Apples were introduced to BC by the early settlers with seed that they carried with them from Fort Vancouver as they explored the interior. By the 1850s there were plantings of small orchards in the lower Fraser Valley. A fellow named Thomas G. Earl established the first orchard at Lytton. Cold winters forced Earl out of business, but other growers, including an Oblate missionary named Father Pandosy, had discovered the Okanagan Valley. Pandosy planted his first trees in 1862 where the City of Kelowna now stands. Dry soil proved a barrier to production until growers rigged pumps and open flumes to direct water from lakes and creeks into the Valley. Today, from Nova Scotia to BC, apples constitute the largest tree fruit crop in Canada.
Hymn # 77 Seek Not Afar For Beauty
Long before Christianity was born the apple tree was widely adored as a symbol of immortality. The apple represented the sacred heart of the Goddess of eternal life. In Celtic tradition the western paradise was known as Avalon, the isle of Apples.
To the Romans, the apple represent omega, the end, just as eggs were thought to represent alpha, or the beginning. The ideal meal for Romans began with an egg and ended with an apple. Wild boars were roasted with an apple in their mouths to represent eternal life and resurrection.
In Greek mythology, Gaia presented a tree with golden apples to Zeus and his bride Hera on their wedding day. Guarded by Ladon, a serpent who never slept, the apple tree was in the garden of the Hesperides, daughters of the Evening Star. These golden apples popped up time and time again, from the abduction of Helen of Troy to the defeat and marriage of Atlanta.
Apple trees were sacred to the sun god Apollo; in fact, the name Apollo comes from the same root as the modern English word apple. Dionysus was the patron of cultivated trees and specifically of the apple.
Ramses III offered 848 baskets of apples to Hapy, the Egyptian god of the Nile. Among the Norse, Iduna safeguarded a store of apples. When eaten, the apples gave the gift of perpetual youth to the goddesses and gods. It is said that certain Norse priests were forbidden to eat apples, due to the fruit’s legendary lustful properties.
A sacred Shiite drama written around 900 CE featured a dying Mohammed who inhales eternal life by inhaling the scent of an apple an angel had brought him. Centuries earlier, Aristotle was said to have kept death away by holding an apple and inhaling its life sustaining fragrance. Finally and consciously he dropped the apple, thus releasing his soul.
Today, apples are still offered to Chango among the Yoruba.
During the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah, apple slices are dipped in honey and eaten in hope for a sweet new year. A traditional food for Passover is Haroset, a mixture of apple, nuts, wine and spices, representing the bricks of mortar the children of Israel were forced to use to build for their captors during their captivity in Egypt.
In China, by contrast, the pictogram for apple has the synonymous meaning of peace. Thus presenting someone with an apple is to say: 'peace be with you'.
And finally, during the apple harvest in many parts of Britain apple farmers traditionally engaged in the custom of 'wassailing', a kind of tree blessing that invoked the fruitfulness of their trees, chased off any evil spirits or demons that might have liked to steal their fruit, and gave thanks for the harvest. This was celebrated with good quantities of cider and apple cookies as well as with fireworks or gunfire.
Here's to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
Stand fast, root! bear well, top!
Pray God send a good howling crop:
Every twig, apples big:
Every bow, apples enow!
adapted from From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of apples
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Apples
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
apples we devour, dusty peel and all,
comes the familiar dust of autumn, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of apple.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
The title of the service today comes from Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, a rich and bawdy bit of the book that many modern day folks would rather not highlight. It’s also the name of a terrific autobiography by Ruth Reichl, the current editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine. I highly recommend it.
According to the King James, The verse in Song of Songs reads, “ Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick with love" (2: 5) . A more probable translation of the original Hebrew is "Sustain me with raisin cakes, refresh me with apricots." Sadly in this context an apple in not an apple, but another fruit with a reputation as an aphrodisiac.
Apples are as sweet and impossible as my friendship with Naomi, as the delightful little community of the Lunenburg farmer’s market, as all of life. Life is limitlessly divine, every scrap and corner.
We have only scratched the surface of apples here today. We have barely peeked under the peel. I guess in the end, what I so love about apples is that they are so manipulated by humans to be what they are. We have evolved together as species, and continue to evolve together. We have evolved cultures winding around the hard wood of the apple trees that surround our houses. We are an aspect of nature partnering with another aspect of nature, creating histories together, impossible blossom to impossible blossom.
Throughout time and place, apples have been the fruit of love.
In this time and this place we create a community of love.
May you again leave nourished and renewed.
Want to learn more? Here are some of the texts I used in creating the service today:
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen.
Kurlansky, Mark. Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History.
Luard, Elisabeth. Sacred Food: Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment.
Patraker, Joel and Schwartz, Joan. The Greenmarket Cookbook.
Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.
Thoreau, Henry David. Wild Apples (essay).