Wednesday, March 23, 2011

`A Peculiarly Pleasant Bitter Tang'

Readers surely have noticed Thoreau’s fondness for apples and the private mythology he fashions around them. The two books he published during his lifetime feature splendid conclusions, both including apples. Here is the final paragraph of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849):

“We had made about fifty miles this day with sail and oar, and now, far in the evening, our boat was grating against the bulrushes of its native port, and its keel recognized the Concord mud, where some semblance of its outline was still preserved in the flattened flags which had scarce yet erected themselves since our departure; and we leaped gladly on shore, drawing it up, and fastening it to the wild apple-tree, whose stem still bore the mark which its chain had worn in the chafing of the spring freshets.”

One long graceful sentence concluding with the curiously complex image of an apple tree scarred by a chain soon to be fastened again. A “freshet” is the flood caused by heavy rains or, as in this case, the spring thaw. Thoreau emphasizes the tree is wild, not cultivated. Even in his return to Concord there’s a suggestion of wilderness. The familiar, too, is feral. The season is spring, Thoreau’s consistent image of return, renewal, rebirth – a theme made even more explicit in the second-to-last paragraph of Walden (1854):

“Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts — from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb — heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board — may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!”

Another densely layered image – the apple wood in the kitchen table is a “well-seasoned tomb.” When reading Thoreau’s prose, remain ever alert for puns and other suggestions of multiple meaning, even within in a single word – “urn,” for instance, and “aburnum.” Dry Yankee comedy is seldom far away. This final chapter to a cyclically organized book is titled “Conclusion” (the preceding chapter is “Spring”), with its well-known final sentence: “The sun is but a morning star.”

In his essay “Wild Apples,” Thoreau says “…the apple-tree may be considered a symbol of peace no less than the olive.” True, but sustained reading of Thoreau’s works, including the journal, suggests he likewise associated the tree and its fruit with abundance, sustenance, independence, tradition and a uniquely American species of individualism. He says in “Wild Apples”:

“Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits. Let the most beautiful or the swiftest have it. That should be the `going’ price of apples.”

In Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (1998), another mythologizer of apples and author of Apples and Pears, Guy Davenport, writes:

“Thoreau’s feeling that the apple had become a naturalized American while the pear remained European bears inspection. Apple—prize, temptation, reward—is a symbol containing opposite meanings: love and hate, harmony and discord. Pear is wholly charismatic; moreover, when it displays double meanings like the apple, the meanings are both benign.”

In the wild apple – sweet and tart, gnarled and smooth, common and sublime -- Thoreau glimpsed an image of himself. In his journal for Oct. 29, 1855, he writes:

"There is a wild apple on the hill which has to me a peculiarly pleasant bitter tang, not perceived till it is three quarters tasted. It remains on the tongue. As you cut it, it smells exactly like a squash-bug. I like its very acerbity. It is a sort of triumph to eat and like it, an ovation."


Helen Pinkerton said...

Melville's story, "The Apple-Tree Table; Or Original Spiritual Manifestations" (Putnam's Monthly, 1856) has been casually linked by scholars to Thoreau's mention of the New England incident in Walden. He creates a little drama out of it in his usual highly suggestive but finally elusive manner. The narrator's tone is jocose and mocking throughout as he listens and responds to the ticking in the table top. Then: "I saw something moving, or wriggling, or squirming upon the slab of the table. It shone like a glow-worm. Unconsciously, I grasped the poker that stood at hand. But bethinking me how absurd to attack a glow-worm with a poker, I put it down." He approaches the table: "And there, near the centre of the slab, as I live, I saw an irregular little hole, or, rather, short nibbled sort of crack, from which (like a butterfly escaping its chrysalis) the sparking object, whatever it might be, was struggling. Its motion was the motion of life. I stood becharmed." He discounts "spirits"--evil-- which his daughters insisted were the cause of the ticking and prefers to look at it in a "purely scientific way." He captures it with a tumbler, but overnight Biddy the servant throws it out. The ticking is heard again the next day and eventually he and his family see another "bug" emerge from the table-top. "There, half in and half out its crack, there wriggled the bug, flashing in the room's general dimness, like a fiery opal. . . . In truth, it was a beautiful bug . . . a bug like a sparkle of a glorious sunset. . . a seraphical bug." They call in a naturalist, who explains how "the bugs had come from eggs laid inside the bark of the living tree in the orchard" for 90 years and for 80 years in the table. Julia the daughter, however, refuses the scientific statement as inadequate and persists in seeing "a spiritual lesson," for "if this beautous creature be not a spirit, it yet teaches a spiritual lesson" and is an argument for resurrection. Melville, as usual, seems to me to present both sides of the question and not clearly one or the other. See what you think.

Helen Pinkerton said...

Just one more glance at apple trees. Timothy Murphy writes about his apple orchard in North Dakota:

"It Is Very Far North"

Four giddy days are all that spring allows
the drunken bumblings of our honey bees
before a south wind, stripping petaled boughs,
turns apples into ordinary trees.
Ours have weathered blizzards, freezing rain,
a record flood crest and a May snow squall.
Now only scab, inchworms and hail remain
to rob us of an ample apple fall,
a brief lifting of limbs before the snow
grips them with such reluctance to let go.

And, like Thoreau, but in a different American landscape, he likes detail:

North Dakota apple trees are grafted at the root to crabapple stock, crab roots having more resistance than apple to the deep frosts of a long winter. Every year more of the old trees collapse under the weight of their fruit or succumb to the ever-present blight; so in spring when the sap begins to run and the geese are calling, I graft Redwell or Fireside scion wood to the crab shoots that sprout from surviving roots. I'll never have the hand of the old doctor [former owner] or his remarkable ratio of grafting success, but I've stayed to some degree the decline of the aging trees. And I welcome an excuse to be outdoors in the orchard each April, to watch migrating bald eagles fish the river or kestrels hunt the hungry mice emerging from their winter nests.

From: Set the Ploughshare Deep: A Prairie Memoir (2000)