While it first appears to be a simple exploration of lost North American apple varieties, The Ghost Orchard dredges up other kinds of ghosts and other types of loss in a lacy web of colonialism, agriculture, and human relationships.
Taken on when her friend Joanne Page was dying from cancer, Humphreys traces her own search for the Winter White Pearmain (“crisp and juicy with an underlay of pear and honey”), a heritage apple she discovers near a cabin by her home while walking the dog, and a metaphor for all types of loss as she explores the lost orchards of many notable apple-lovers.
There are many tangents here, but the chapters on Robert Frost and his love of apples, as well as the work of Ann Jessop, who travelled the US with apple scions (those are the branches that are grafted onto existing trees, as opposed to planting seeds directly into the ground) are but two stories that Humphreys researches and shares. She also writes extensively about her Grandfather, an artist who painted the artwork for seed packets, and whose interest in not just apples but all types of produce has obviously affected her.
Readers will either love or hate the intertwining of Humphreys’ personal memories and loss with the more factual and historical elements of this work. Sometimes they feel extremely disparate and at odds, yet in the case of her discussion of the orchards of Native North Americans and how they were appropriated by colonial settlers, the sense of loss and sympathy crosses over into the personal.
Humphreys ends with a massive list of lost apple varieties that will make anyone standing in the supermarket considering “red, green, or yellow” tearful at what we’re all missing. Which is sort of the point, I think, on every level.
Is there any fruit that typifies September and the Fall harvest better than the apple? Boy Scouts apple day, an apple for the first day of school, a roadside produce stand groaning with different varieties… we love us some apples. And despite what your supermarket might have you think, they come in more types than red, green and yellow. 7500 varieties, to be specific, with the fruit originating in Western Asia and showing up throughout history in Norse, Greek and Pagan mythology. One theory about the apple being the unnamed “forbidden fruit” in the Bible is based on the fact that the Book of Genesis was written by Romans at a time when the Christian church was trying to convert pagans. Since the pagans revered the apple, making it evil or forbidden contributed to the number of new converts.
Apples now grow in almost every part of the world. Here in Ontario, growers have focused on about a dozen common varieties, but there are over 100 heritage varieties that can be found at local orchards and pick-your-own farms. Apples are typically harvested from late July until October. Growers’ associations like the one in Norfolk County provide storage facilities for area apple growers in a climate-controlled, low-oxygen warehouse that allows Ontarians to have local apples year-round. There’s no reason to be eating apples from China (where 35% of the world’s apples are grown), when we have a great year-round variety right here.
I am eating a Gingergold as I write this. The first of the season – they’re weeks early due to the hot dry weather. The skin is crisp, the flesh is sweet and if I allow it to linger on my tongue… yes, just the slightest bit gingery. The second best thing of summer is finding the pinkish-green apples piled in baskets at the farmer’s market. The first is the moment I bite into one. Neither the first corn, the first blueberries or the first peaches can match the moment of the first Gingergold. Oh, there’s other apples, and they’ll keep me happy throughout the winter and into the spring, but the Gingergolds never last; there’s not enough of them to start with and fans like me buy them in bushel baskets, hoarding them in cool closets or cellars, desperate to make them last as long as possible.
Probably those Gingergold fans are going to be out for my head, having shared a harvest secret with TasteTO readers. See, we apple-lovers count on most of you to think of apples as coming in red, green and yellow, and to be ignorant of the over one hundred varieties of apples currently grown in Ontario.