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25 march 2019

Marcia Reiss' Apple for the Reaktion Botanical series complements Erika Janik's Apple for the Edible series. As befits the different missions of the series, Reiss' book deals somewhat more with horticulture, and Janik's somewhat more with cuisine; but there is necessarily a good deal of overlap. Apple fanciers will want both books, though, because among other things each is lavishly and separately illustrated.

Reiss starts with Thoreau's chagrin over the loss of wild apple groves to cloned cultivation, over 150 years ago. The apple, which proliferates amazingly into different varieties when grown from seed, can only be commercially cultivated by grafting. Hence a continual tension in Reiss' book in the business of growing apples: the imperative to produce reliable apples, which keeps reducing diversity and creating boring, vulnerable crops – set against the mad proliferation of the feral apple, vibrant but unmarketable.

The botany of the apple is largely artificial – as Michael Pollan, a continual reference point for Reiss, emphasized in his chapter on apples in The Botany of Desire. Or rather, the botanical potential of the apple is astonishingly diverse, even in the seeds at the heart of your supermarket Red Delicious. But the processes that get supermarket apples into your fridge are heavily managed by human intervention. Apple is the history of those processes.

Cider is central to the story, though at times political forces have tried to subdue the importance of cider. As an intoxicating drink, hard for governments to control, apple cider has always had something of a populist, indeed a rebellious, nature. When the Whigs in the late 1830s wanted to promote their presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, they seized on a Democratic rhetorical misstep that accused Harrison of spending his time drunk on hard cider. Suddenly the elderly civil servant was an unimpeachable man of the people, the hard-cider candidate. It was the early-Victorian equivalent of a candidate downing a couple of Buds at a corner bar in Pittsburgh.

Even Prohibition had to grant orchardists the privilege of home-pressing cider, thus creating one of the many wet exceptions in America's crusade against drink. Because, as Reiss points out, what's more American than an apple, and what's more sacrosanct than the apple tree in your own backyard?

When I was a kid, we lived for a while on a tomato farm that featured, smack in the middle, an elderly apple tree. Maybe it had been there 75 years, maybe a hundred; maybe it was a seedling in the days of William Henry Harrison. I was never much of a climber, but the apple was easily accessible and was the only tree I ever got very far up into. In its boughs you could feel for a time free of the poverty and prejudice below, united with Nature in an expression of an American ideal.

Though of course the apple is native to the Old World, and always encoded a type of imperialist ideal. Reiss spends several pages on John Chapman, "Johnny Appleseed." A genuine American folk hero, Appleseed presents all kinds of contradictions. He was a simple man of the soil, a ruralist, a gentle fructivore, a generous promoter of infrastructure: and a keen businessman, a forerunner of many an urban area, and a harbinger of the retreat and death of American Indians.

In terms of apple poetry and song, Reiss cites the Bible, Shakespeare, and Robert Frost. She mentions the Andrews Sisters' hit "I'll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time" but not the even more delightful standard "I Found a Peach in Orange, New Jersey in Apple Blossom Time." No, honestly, there aren't many great pieces of apple verse outside of the work of Frost. Bobby Russell noted that "God didn't make little green apples" but that is just a cliché and the closest anyone has ever come to finding a rhyme for "Indianapolis" (which is in turn spectacularly irrelevant to the song). Lorenz Hart complained "I'm just like an apple on a bough / And you're gonna shake me down somehow" – a lyric better integrated with his theme "You Took Advantage of Me" but still fairly incidental. The most evocative use of apples in poetry may be Wallace Stevens', from "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle":

This luscious and impeccable fruit of life
Falls, it appears, of its own weight to earth.
When you were Eve, its acrid juice was sweet,
Untasted, in its heavenly, orchard air.
An apple serves as well as any skull
To be the book in which to read a round,
And is as excellent, in that it is composed
Of what, like skulls, comes rotting back to ground.
But it excels in this, that as the fruit
Of love, it is a book too mad to read
Before one merely reads to pass the time.

Reiss, Marcia. Apple. London: Reaktion, 2015.