In this North Devon orchard, there are rose-orange apples and pale green apples and many more kinds.
The more you look at an apple tree, the odder it looks, like when you roll the same word around your mouth and it becomes nonsense. Apple. Apple. Apple.
‘Bapple’ was my brother’s first word and ‘App’ was my husband’s. But apple isn’t baby nonsense. It’s a first word, first fruit, first knowing of the pleasure of food. Its sherbet-ness, what my daughter calls ‘ting tang’, once tasted, feels somehow essential for the tongue. As a weaning baby her eyes stretched in curious shock as she tried it for the first time but she knew it was her food, for good.
Apples are good for tongues and also good for songs. Actually, people round here used to believe that songs were good for apples. Wassail songs were laid around apple trees on January nights as a kind of fertiliser. Wassail means ‘be hael’, be healthy or whole. To be fertile is to be whole.
This is an old and fertile orchard. If you dip down so your chin is in line with the high grasses, you see that the sunlight is laced with flying creatures. The apples here cluster at the end of branches like siblings around a table, the bigger ones elbowing out the runts, hungrier for the soil juices, weighing down the branches until they have to fall. Each apple has a navel, and all the navels look outwards. The hidden fibres from stalk to navel form a rope, for holding on to the mother tree while the hungry flesh bulges out around it.
Four decades ago. I remember being crowded around a table. We would have stewed apples for pudding. It was always cooking apples in those days, crazily sour and rough, never sweet enough but back then you would never think to cook sweet eating apples. The cookers were given to us by old men in the village and we’d return the favour when we had gluts on, giving them strawberries or tomatoes. Sometimes their gifts would be horse shit or peelings for compost. My mum was a keen member of the Soil Association and she liked to experiment with different recipes.
We were not encouraged to take our pudding bowls through to the TV. We’d stay at the narrow dining table squeezed in beside the pantry, to converse about Democracy, Evolution or Expressionism. Chewing on food and ideas. There was no elbow room or echo room but there was room for thought. Mouths around our old spoons, tasting of acid biting into metal, we’d test big words for approval, try out questions to see if they would grow into trees of talk.
Maybe I asked then, does every kind of fruit have a perfect mouth? What animals in nature are apples designed for? They seem too big for so many mouths but perfect for apes and boars. I heard that human flesh is more like pig flesh than any other animal because we are both omnivorous woodland creatures. Have apples been designed by humans and boar over the years, through a three way symbiosis? Is it that we pick from the branches, the boar snout from the ground, while the tree evolves to suit us both?
As a child I’d invent systems like this, draw flow diagrams in my head, linking the seeds, roots, birds and soil, making wholes out of parts. I never arrived at any kind of system that felt whole because another question would always disturb the soil bed of my thinking.
I’m still thinking like this, still more questions than answers. One question is perennial. Are we evolving to be more ecocentric? Or, are we not evolving yet because we’re manipulating everything else in nature to suit us and so we haven’t suffered enough yet? We’ve manipulated apple trees to suit us, first of all designing in great variety but now designing out the variety in a plague of monoculture. Maybe we’ve come to be against diversity and so we’re working against evolution.
Sometimes, as a child, I didn’t think. I was just there leaning out of my window in the unlit night, out in the massive black sky, with the stars. At other times, lying under a tree but up there in the sky with the house martins. I could do this mental trick of leaving my body. It felt like a scattering, a distribution of myself into many stars, snowflakes, insects, birds. But simultaneously I was also whole. Once I had discovered this trick, the sensation of it entered my dreams. I began to dream lucidly and then to paint these dreams. But these youthful feelings of mastery over my dreams and dissemination through space was illusory. It didn’t translate into control over the things that made my life and the world so problematic.
Over the cattle grid out of the orchard, I cross gingerly to one side of the bars. At that place, every time I cross here, there is this threshold smell. From behind comes the orchard’s grass and from the hill ahead comes manure. The cattle grid is a little like a cow’s digestion, transforming grass to manure. The two smells combine into one, fresh, rotten, fresh.
I walk up the hill and divert leftwards to the corrugated iron barn. It has no gates or locked doors. So, there innocuously and with no security, sit twenty one bags of Nitron fertiliser, each holding 600kg. They look like supermarket carrier bags for a giant. I feel as if someone is watching, despite the silence. I start to see the bags as fat women with narrow heads swathed in long veils, peering mournfully at me. Then they are bags again.
Who is it that comes and picks them up, stirs up the poison stuff with a giant spoon and scatters it on the fields? I don’t have the internet here in Devon but I’ve spent enough years absorbing the internet to recall some salient facts: Nearly half the people on Earth are fed as a result of synthetic Nitrogen fertiliser. Nitrous oxide is the third most important greenhouse gas. It poisons rivers and causes dead oceans. It is the biggest environmental disaster nobody has ever heard of. It causes Blue Baby Syndrome, which kills children.
It feeds children and it kills them.
We used to hang round the farm in our village, though I knew we weren’t supposed to. Helen Harvey took me there because her dad and grandad worked there, so she felt at home in the farm. Two relatives of my village school friends died of leukaemia. They had spent winter months spreading artificial fertiliser on the fields around our houses.
There, just six feet away in front of the giant’s bags, is a squirrel static on its haunches. We startle each other. He scampers away, more frightened than I am. To him I’m the giant.
I am nervous in farm buildings because I expect a foreman warning me about the dangers of falling onto blades or into silage tanks. There never is, though. There are rarely warnings about the really dangerous things. Beneath the squirrel startle, there is something else, a deeper sense of unquiet. I’ve been cut off from news for a week but last Friday the news was terrible enough to stay with me. Anders B. Brievik had taken delivery of six tonnes of fertiliser to a barn, perhaps just like this. He used it to bomb the offices of Norway’s prime minister before heading to the island of Utoya to shoot young people on a Labour Party camp. He killed ninety three and injured almost as many. He did it because he was against diversity.
Oddly, in the weeks that followed, despite demonstrations of sympathy across Norway, the membership of the country’s right wing parties and extremist groups increased while support for the victimised Labour party decreased. Oddly. Or maybe this contrariness is typical? Maybe violence against diversity fertilises more violence. The beast stirs things up.
I’m startled again. A little crowd of sparrows rushes across the barn opening. They are like children out on a school trip, keen and small, looking always for their lunch. I’ve missed sparrows lately. They were many when I was young but their numbers have declined hugely due to increased farmland yields because of fertiliser.
We fertilise life and yet we kill it. We feed children and we kill them. Those children (who live), grow to feed children and also to kill them.
I’m disturbed again and my thoughts won’t be whole. So, comfort me with apples grown fat with songs.
Written at Totleigh Barton on a creative non-fiction course with Sukhdev Sandhu and Rachel Lichtenstein