For a gardener or farmer, harvest-time arrives uncertainly, bracketed by the natural scheme of things—fruit and vegetables mature and ripen; but some years weather tampers with the farmer’s best intentions and rain transforms fields into bogs or an early freeze converts tender tomatoes and peppers into a squishy inedible mess.
In good years, harvest comes with a roll-up your sleeves and get-to-work mood, a savoir faire, of digging potatoes and picking apples and pears, trundling in squash and pumpkins, lettuce and leeks, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. That is, if you have a garden. Our two tomato plants froze two weeks ago, the night before we got home from Minnesota.
Yesterday, a rare gloomy day with rain-threatening, I read harvest poems, discovering differences of perspective and inclination. In To Autumn, John Keats (1795-1821) viewed harvest as if from some great distance:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
The term “Harvest Moon” entered our vernacular sometime in the past, when we all knew the significance and timing, as in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Harvest Moon:
It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes
And roofs of villages, on woodland crests
And their aerial neighborhoods of nests
Longfellow (1807-1882) gives a nod to metaphor and instructs us to read between the lines (“All things are symbols…”):
The song-birds leave us at the summer’s close,
Only the empty nests are left behind,
And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.
The gardener is more quail than song-bird. She stays and picks the tender soft-skinned vegetables before the first hard frost, and appreciates produce that keeps without the labor of preserving, only needing a good root cellar—winter pears and squash, apples, potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic. Her fingers and fingernails are stained, lines inked by cherries, grapes, and tomatoes that only time wears off. Even sprawled exhausted on the sofa, stacks of cookbooks tantalize her with recipes to try. Simmer a stock with potatoes and leaks, or dense orange squash. Apples baking. Potatoes roasting. And the exquisite scent of pie. To the gardener, harvest is a matter of life, not death, and a step nearer the winter festivals—more than twelve days of light and cheer.
The garden-less gardener, though, takes what comes her way…and gives what she makes.
Robert Frost’s poem After Apple-Picking portrays a harvest mania—the frenetic work that radiates into dreams where repetitive motions are relived (“What form my dreaming was about to take. / Magnified apples appear and disappear”).
Or harvest is reduced to a single human pain. Frost: “My instep arch not only keeps the ache, / It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round”; Frost tantalizes us with images (“I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend”) and noise (“And I keep hearing from the cellar bin / The rumbling sound / Of load on load of apples coming in”).
You might think Frost has exhausted the descriptive possibilities when he switches to numerical accounting (“There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch”) but he continues to dissect the experience of the apple harvest, even noticing the windfall apples in “the cider-apple heap.”
Not so, last weekend at my sister’s harvest and cider-making party—we picked the cider apples off the trees. Between us all, a large extended family, we washed and chopped gallon after gallon, putting the chunks through a grinder (a new garbage disposal modified for the job), then cranked (by hand) the apple slurry in a press our mom bought decades ago, until the apple juice flowed. Juice we tasted and drank, pronounced sweet and appreciated, as was the rain that washed the air of forest fire smoke, and the years my sister has spent nurturing her apple trees.
Read Robert Frost’s poem After Apple-Picking, and listen for the variations of rhyming (adjacent lines, or every third or fourth line) and rhythms (beats). Notice also the light touch on the universal, where a position might point the way (“My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still,”) and how words like winter, cellar, and earth may cause you to think of other things, and pave the way to the last few lines where the big questions arise from musings of how our “human sleep” might differ from the “long sleep” of the woodchuck.
After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost was published in 1914, ninety-eight years ago, when harvest was a different experience than today:
by Robert Frost
MY long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
Sources and Notes (I encourage you to read the poems by Keats and Longfellow!):
After Apple-Picking. Robert Frost.
To Autumn. John Keats. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15565
The Harvest Moon. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Photos: © Katie Eberhart.