Clad in wool and plaid, pumpkin spice latte in hand, we might find our yearly autumnal excursion to the apple orchard not quite the same after reading Helen Humphreys’s latest book, a fascinating glimpse into the surprisingly complicated history of the humble apple in North America. In her signature elegant and understated style, Humphreys elevates what might on the surface appear to be an unremarkable niche subject to a revealing work of narrative and historical detail overlaid with the intimacy of memoir.
While struggling to deal with her friend Joanne Page’s terminal illness, and following the discovery of a White Winter Pearmain apple tree beside an abandoned log cabin not far from her home, Humphreys becomes enthralled with the idea of exploring the story of the apple. “I couldn’t stop my friend’s death, or fight against it,” the author writes. “I stood out by the log cabin and the dead tree that night and thought that what I could do was make a journey alongside Joanne – a journey that was about something life-affirming, something as basic and fundamental as an apple.”
The journey starts on a weighty note, with a chapter titled “The Indian Orchard.” Humphreys explores the origins of the apple, a fruit brought to North America from Europe in the early 1600s. “The recorded history of the apple in North America,” she declares, “is the history of white settlement in the nineteenth century.”
Her research and travels reveal that, at one time, so-called Indian orchards (defined in 19th-century dictionaries as orchards of ungrafted apple trees) existed all across the U.S. and in southern Ontario. The apple, she discovers, became an essential food to the Iroquois, the Seneca, the Oneida, the Algonquian, the Cherokee, and many other Indigenous peoples, and they were very successful in growing extensive, thriving orchards. Dreadfully and with dire results, many if not most of these orchards were either destroyed or violently appropriated by white settlers. “It is no accident that many of the white settlements sprang up where there was an Indigenous orchard. But first, of course, the original owners had to be vanquished. The apple thus became, in its infancy in North America, a tool for colonialism.”
Other chapters in The Ghost Orchard include the story of Ann Jessop, a Quaker woman in North Carolina who brought cuttings from apple trees in England back to the southern states; a brief history of several of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s watercolour artists who spent their careers illustrating apples in various stages of decomposition; a reflection on friendship and Robert Frost’s foray into apple growing; and an extensive account of lost orchards and varieties.
Impeccably written and affecting in its personal and philosophical tone – particularly so in the beautiful concluding paragraphs of the final chapter – The Ghost Orchard illuminates the shadowy history of one of our most familiar foods.